Eleventh Circuit Rejects Employee’s Disability Discrimination Case Due to Proposed Accommodation’s Lack of Reasonableness

If you are a person with a disability, the Americans With Disabilities Act may require your employer to engage in an interactive process with you regarding providing an accommodation for your disability. However, in order for the law to require the employer to pursue that process, you must first identify an accommodation, and that accommodation must be reasonable. An employee at a county jail’s medical unit recently lost her case in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals because she failed to propose a reasonable accommodation. The case is an instructive one regarding what Georgia employees must do in order to trigger their employers’ obligations to engage in an interactive process.

In this case, Lisa Spears was a corrections officer at the medical unit of the Wakulla County Jail in Crawfordsville, Florida. In 2011, Spears received a diagnosis of pre-cancer. Her doctors diagnosed her with cancer early the next year. In March 2012, the Sheriff’s Office outsourced the medical care of jail inmates to a private contractor, which resulted in the elimination of Spears’ job. Ineligible for a position with the contractor, the employee asked the Sheriff to transfer her to a lieutenant position within the jail. The Sheriff declined because no lieutenant positions were vacant at that time but did offer Spears a detention deputy position.

The deputy position involved 12-hour shifts. Spears renewed her request for a lieutenant job, stating that, because of her medical condition, she needed a job that offered a “roughly 8 to 5 shift” and the ability to take FMLA leave intermittently. Also, because of her radiation treatments, Spears was physically unable to perform the duties of the deputy job. Ultimately, unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution, the employer terminated Spears.

The employee sued, asserting disability discrimination in violation of the ADA. The employee alleged that the employer violated the law by failing to even initiate any sort of interactive process with her regarding the reasonable accommodations she proposed. The employer argued in its defense that Spears never identified an accommodation for her disability that was truly reasonable. Placing the employee in a lieutenant position was not reasonable because no such vacancies existed. In fact, placing her in any “light duty” jobs, or creating one for Spears, within the department was not reasonable because regular attendance was an essential requirement of all of the department’s light-duty jobs, and Spears’ need for intermittent leave would prevent her from attending work with the degree of regularity required by the job.

The trial court sided with the employer, and, on appeal, the Sheriff again emerged successful. The appeals court explained that an accommodation of a disability is only reasonable “if it allows the employee to perform the job’s essential functions.” The employee must first identify not only an accommodation but one that is reasonable under the law before the employer is obliged to engage in any sort of interactive process. The ADA’s requirement regarding reasonably accommodating employees with disabilities does not require employers to create new positions or bump other employees from their existing jobs in order to create a vacancy for an employee with a disability.

The law also does not require an employer to change the essential functions of a job to accommodate an employee with a disability. The deputy position available within the department required, as necessary parts of the job, working rigid 12-hour rotating shifts that required each deputy’s timely arrival and consistent attendance. Spears’ need for intermittent leave meant that she would have been unable to perform these required functions of the job, and placing her in such a job would not be a reasonable accommodation.

Since the employee was unable to identify an accommodation that was reasonable, the employer was never under an obligation to engage in an interactive process.

If you have questions about your rights and obligations as an employee or employer under the ADA, talk to the knowledgeable Georgia disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have the skill and ability to provide you with the knowledge and representation you need. To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Employer Not Required to Offer Telecommuting Accommodation to Employee Who Could Not Perform Job’s Essential Functions, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 9, 2015

Tennessee Staffing Agency and Recycling Center Sued by EEOC for Alleged Disability Discrimination, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 4, 2015

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