Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are unable to perform certain work duties. Determining what constitutes a reasonable accommodation is highly fact intensive and requires consideration of a job’s essential requirements. In Slayton v. Sneaker Villa, Inc., E. D. Pa. no. 15-0074 (Goldberg, J.) (March 20, 2017), an employee filed an action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), alleging that her employer unlawfully terminated her employment by discriminating based on her disability, failing to provide a reasonable accommodation, and retaliation against the employee for requesting a reasonable accommodation. The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and held that the Plaintiff could proceed to a jury trial.
In Slayton, the employee was hired as a Corporate Recruiter; 80 days into her employment, the employee was seriously injured in an accident and hospitalized for 5 days, suffering fractures of multiple vertebrae in her neck and back, and a head injury. The employee was out of work for approximately 2 months and then requested the reasonable accommodation of working full-time from home for 4 weeks or until her physical therapy was complete and she was released back to full-time status without restrictions. The employee’s restrictions included no driving, lifting anything heavier than five pounds, no bending or walking, and no sitting or standing for long periods of time. The employer responded to the reasonable accommodation request by asserting that the restrictions prohibited the employee from meeting the job’s requirements and that the employer could not hold her job any longer. The employee then presented another request, to work part-time in the office 10-15 hours per week and the other 25-30 hours from home, noting that she could perform all of the essential functions of the duties with the exception of the job fairs. A dispute then arose as to whether the employee was told that she was terminated (as the employee contested), or if the employer never stated that the employee was terminated and instead was requested to provide a doctor’s note outlining her restrictions. Ultimately, the employer terminated the employee claiming that the employee needed to be in the office full-time, as the job required face-to-face interviews, traveling, attendance at job fairs and other responsibilities that the employee could not perform the job given her physical condition.
An employee may prove disability discrimination by indirect evidence through the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. First, the employee must establish a prima facie case by showing that the employee is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; the employee is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and the employee suffered an adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination. Thereafter, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment decision. Then the employee must show that the employer’s reason is pretextual by pointing to evidence from which a factfinder could reasonably either disbelieve the employer’s articulated legitimate reason; or believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or determinative cause of the employer’s action.
In Slayton, the employer argued that the employee could not meet the essential functions of the job which it alleged required physical presence in the office and the ability to travel. Whether a particular function is essential, is a factual determination that is made on a case by case basis. In assessing whether a given job function is essential, courts look at the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function; and the work experience of past and current employees who perform the same or similar jobs. An employer may be required to restructure a job by reallocating or redistributing nonessential, marginal job functions; however, the employer is not required to reallocate essential functions.
In Slayton, the court found that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether physical presence in the office was an essential job function, in part based on the employee’s testimony that despite her requests to do so, she never actually traveled to any job fairs during her employment. The employee’s pretext evidence consisted of the employee contending that she was fired before the employer ever requesting a doctor’s note and someone else being offered the job before the employee was asked for a doctor note. The court held that a jury could find that the employer’s claim that the reason for termination, the inability to travel and/or be physically present in the office, was unworthy of credence because it had already decided to terminate the employee before meaningfully assessing her inability to perform those functions.
The ADA requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business. To establish that an employer breached its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation, an employee must demonstrate: (1) that the employee was disabled and the employer knew it; (2) the employee requested an accommodation or assistance; (3) the employer did not make a good faith effort to assist; and (4) the employee could have been reasonably accommodated. Once an accommodation is requested, the employer is required to engage in the interactive process during which the employer and employee identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and the potential reasonable accommodations. Employers may meet their obligation in a number of ways, such as meeting with the employee who requests an accommodation, requesting information about the condition and what limitations the employee has, and offering and discuss available alternatives when a request is too burdensome. A failure to communicate, either by way of initiation or response, may be bad faith.
The term reasonable accommodation is expressly defined to include part-time or modified work schedules. In Slayton, the court held that the fact that the employee modified her request for a temporary accommodation to include working part-time in the office once she was denied the initial request to work from home, created a factual dispute as to whether the employer engaged in good faith as an employer cannot merely dismiss such a request out of hand and a factual question existed as to whether the requested accommodations were facially reasonable, particularly given the temporary nature of the accommodation request.
Andrew Abramson is a Pennsylvania employment law attorney who represents employees who have been discriminated against based on a disability and denied requests for reasonable accommodations. For more information on workplace accommodations and disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and he Pennsylvania Human Relations Act see our website at http://www.job-discrimination.com/lawyer-attorney-1126511.htm.