DISABILITIES IN THE WORKPLACE: ACCOMMODATIONS ARE AS IMPORTANT AS EVER

A recent federal court ruling from Pennsylvania in Serine v. Marshall Dennehey highlights employers’ ongoing exposure to lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.  There, the U.S. District Judge ruled that Erica Serine, a Philadelphia lawyer and former law firm associate, could proceed with a lawsuit against the firm for failing to accommodate her claustrophobia. 

According to the court’s February 25, 2015 opinion, Serine first requested a transfer in 2012 from the firm’s Scranton office to an office in Philadelphia or Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to be closer to family.  The firm granted her transfer to the Philadelphia office. 

Serine claims that when she rode the elevator to the firm’s 23rd floor offices there, she started having anxiety and claustrophobia symptoms.  Over the next few days, she “obsessively researched evacuation plans” and was extremely nervous at work, particularly while riding in the elevator or while away from a window.  Serine told her supervisor that she could not return to the office, and the firm allowed her to work from home while she sought treatment with a psychologist. 

About two weeks later, Serine met with her supervisor and a member of the firm’s executive committee, who questioned her medical documentation and said the firm did not have a place for her other than in Philadelphia or at the Scranton office, where she worked for two years.  The firm denied her request for transfer elsewhere, but allowed Serine to work from home for the next three months, and gave Serine a favorable performance review with a $5,000.00 raise. 

When Serine requested transfer once again, the firm advised her she needed to return to the Philadelphia or Scranton office to remain employed.  Serine did not accept either offer, and she was terminated.  Serine filed suit, and the firm asked for dismissal, but the District Judge ruled Serine’s allegations were sufficient for the case to go forward. 

This ruling demonstrates how employers could be forced to litigate ADA lawsuits even after engaging in good faith negotiations, and also serves as a reminder of the broad definition of disability under the ADA.  To minimize risk, employers should always consider whether “reasonable accommodation” might include:  (1) making existing facilities readily accessible by disabled employees; (2) job restructuring, modifying work schedules, or reassignment to a vacant position; (3) acquiring or modifying equipment or devices.  On the other hand, employers are not required to create positions to accommodate employees with disabilities, and do not have to provide accommodations if it imposes an undue hardship, meaning a significant difficulty or expense in light of the employer’s size, finances, and nature of its operation. 

INSIGHTS FOR EMPLOYERS

  • The ADA prohibits private employers, state and local governments, and labor unions from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in all areas of employment, such as job applications, hiring, firing, advancement, compensation, and other employment privileges.  The same rules apply under the Idaho Human Rights Act.  Employers should keep in mind that while the ADA covers employers with 15 or more employees, the Idaho Human Rights Act applies to all employers with five or more workers.
  • An employer generally does not have to provide an accommodation unless a disabled employee has asked for one.  Once that happens, however, the employer should discuss the employee’s needs and identify the appropriate accommodations.
  • Small business owners with either $1,000,000 or less in revenue or 30 or fewer full-time employees should remember the Small Business Tax Credit, which allows a credit of up to $5,000 annually for the cost of providing reasonable accommodations.

     

  • Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.