ADA Reasonable Accommodation in Disability Discrimination Cases

5 Apr

Determining Reasonable Accommodations in Disability Discrimination Cases – Impact of State Law

It is generally accepted that the threshold element of a claim for disability discrimination is that the plaintiff has a “disability” as defined by ADA and is able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. As per the ADA, a disability is a physical impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity. ADA, defines “major life activity” expansively, to include almost all of life’s activities. However, what happens when a state human rights act or other state law alters the definition of what constitutes a major life activity? For example, a major life activity under the Missouri Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) is a life activity which affects employability, such as “communication, self-care, socialization, education, vocational training, employment and transportation.”

The impact of Missouri’s modified definition of major life activity is reflected in the disability discrimination case, , Loerch v. City of Union Missouri. In this case, the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District of Missouri emphasized the difference between the ADA’s expansive definition of major life activities and the MHRA’s definition, which is limited to those that affect a person’s employability. The Court also held that the reasonableness of a disability accommodation under the MHRA remains a fact-intensive, case-by-case inquiry, even when it comes to reassigning job duties to other employees.

In this case, Mr. Loerch was diagnosed with coronary artery disease (“CAD”). His medical doctor cleared him for return to work full duty with the limitation that he should not be exposed to extreme heat or cold. Loerch testified that he could perform “virtually all” of his outdoor duties without exposure to extreme heat or cold by, for example, mowing early in the day. However, shoveling snow and ice would potentially expose him to extreme cold, so he asked that another employee be assigned that task. Loerch testified that in the past, others had shoveled snow when he was absent. The City denied the requested accommodations, and Loerch claimed that he was told he must retire or be terminated. He retired and subsequently filed suit claiming he was terminated for his disability.

The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Loerch was not disabled within the meaning of the MHRA. The trial court found that Loerch’s CAD did not substantially limit him from the major life activity of working, and no reasonable accommodation would allow him to work in extreme temperatures, an essential function of his job. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, finding, in part, that disputed facts about the reasonableness of the requested accommodation precluded summary judgment.

Employers and practitioners who are used to dealing with the ADA should take care not to assume any per se rules from federal ADA accommodation cases will apply the same way in state claims. Written functional job descriptions, as in the type created by WorkSaver for clients, are often very relevant in accommodations cases. Employers should take care that the functional job descriptions accurately reflect the duties required to be performed and update them as appropriate.

The Court of Appeals found that CAD was a physical impairment, but the City argued that it did not substantially limit a major life activity. The Court of Appeals rejected the City’s argument that Loerch was not substantially limited because he could do other work, where he would not be exposed to extreme conditions. This fact alone was not enough to prove that Loerch was not substantially limited.

The Court of Appeals then evaluated whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job. The Court found that factual questions abound regarding the nature of the job functions performed in extreme heat or cold, precluding summary judgment. Those questions included the amount of time spent on functions such as mowing or shoveling snow and ice, all of which were material and disputed. Finally, the Court of Appeals turned to the issue of reasonable accommodation.

The City’s only argument on summary judgment was that assigning other employees to perform the plaintiff’s job functions was unreasonable, which the Court of Appeals rejected. The most noteworthy statement in the Opinion deals with federal court cases interpreting the ADA. According to the Court, to the extent any federal court case holds that assigning others to perform certain tasks for an employee “can never be reasonable as a matter of law” is “inconsistent with the individualized, fact-dependent, case-by-case approach taken by Missouri courts” in MHRA cases. In other words, if a federal ADA case tries to short-circuit the fact-intensive inquiry and instead rely upon a “bright line” rule (i.e., a law or standard that is intended to be unambiguous and prevent subjective interpretation), the Court of Appeals for the Eastern District does not want to hear about it.

The Court of Appeals also distinguished prior MHRA cases regarding shifting duties to other employees. According to the Court, none of those cases establishes a per se rule in Missouri that shifting job duties to others is unreasonable as a matter of law. Whether the requested accommodation includes reassigning job duties to other employees, hiring additional employees, or restructuring an employee’s job, the reasonableness of an accommodation request must be evaluated on its own facts. However, the law remains that a reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to reassign duties or restructure a job in a way that “would usurp the legitimate rights of other employees.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals held that there were disputed material facts – such as how often the task was performed, the burden on other employees, the City’s resources – that precluded summary judgment. The decision of the trial court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Employers and practitioners should always be familiar with any state’s human rights act or other laws that change or expand upon federal ADA interpretations of what constitutes disability, major life activities, and undue hardship.
  2. Employers and practitioners should exercise caution when attempting to apply federal ADA reasonable accommodation precedents to state claims.
  3. Employers should always apply individualized, case by case, fact-intensive inquiries when assessing reasonableness of accommodations.
  4. Employers should base accommodation decisions on job functions that are validated as being essential and memorialized in functional job descriptions.

Reference: Employment Law Blog by Nicholas Ruble, Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Note: WorkSaver Systems conducts on-site job analyses to create ADA compliant functional job descriptions and performs ADA compliant Physical Abilities Testing for numerous employers via a nation-wide network of WorkSaver certified clinics. The WorkSaver process has successfully undergone EEOC reviews of the WorkSaver physical abilities testing process. For more information, contact our office at (800)414-2174 or (985) 853-2214.

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