In a scorching rebuke to an employer, a federal district court ruled against the company for unilaterally revoking a long-observed disability accommodation and ultimately firing the employee. The employee was a chemical engineer who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Bipolar Disorder. The employee requested a change in schedule from 8:30-5:00 to 10:00-6:30 (the same number of total work hours) because the side effects of her medications made her unable to work earlier in the morning. The request was approved by the employer.
During the two years the employee worked this schedule, there were no issues concerning her job performance or ability to keep up with her workload. A new supervisor several levels above the employee suddenly decided all employees in the lab workgroup had to adhere to the same schedule of 8:30-5:00. The employee objected and provided additional medical documentation on her need for the different schedule to support her continuing accommodation. During the several months that the company was evaluating her situation, it insisted she comply with the new schedule, and she continued to accrue negative points under the attendance policy because she was unable to arrive at work at the start time. The company ultimately fired her for attendance issues and the employee sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The court rejected the company’s claims that the schedule caused an “undue hardship,” since the engineer performed her duties successfully throughout the period she had the later start time. The company now has the burden to demonstrate that it was reasonable to withdraw the existing accommodation (Isbell v. John Crane, Inc., ND Ill, March 2014).
Tips: When an employee has a disability, the first step is to determine whether the disability impacts the performance of an “essential job” function. If the employee, as in this case, can perform the essential job functions with reasonable accommodation, the employer cannot refuse the accommodation (assuming it does not pose an undue hardship to the company or a direct threat to health and safety).
This company could have saved time, money, and litigation woes by engaging in a genuine interactive process with the employee. For more information about disability accommodations and the interactive process, check out our Legal Guide, “ADA: Reasonable Accommodation and the Interactive Process” (1078). You can always contact your Vigilant staff representative with any questions as well.
This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.