Thursday, June 26, 2014

More guidance on "reasonable accommodations" under the ADA

This case reminds us that while plaintiffs are entitled to a medical leave of absence to accommodate their disabilities, the employer is not obligated to honor that request if the plaintiff does not assure management when she can return to work.

The case is Petrone v. Hampton Bays Union Free School District, a summary order issued on May 28. Plaintiff is a schoolteacher who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder. Plaintiff says he could have eventually returned to work and resumed his teaching responsibilities had the district accommodated him.

The reasonable accommodation requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act remains the most elastic legal concept under the civil rights laws. The employer has to find a way to make it work for the plaintiff to accommodate the disability. If the proposed accommodation is not reasonable, i.e., it creates an undue burden on the employer, i.e., it costs too much money or would fundamentally alter the nature of the workplace, then the plaintiff does not have an ADA claim.

The accommodation is also not required if it would ultimately render the plaintiff an unqualified employee. In other words, you have to show that plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with the accommodation. While this can be a fact-specific inquiry, the employer can still get summary judgment. In this case, the employer wins because plaintiff was not a qualified employee under the ADA; "he did not, and could not, provide [the school district] with any assurance that a temporary leave of absence would allow him to resume teaching. This is because neither Petrone nor his doctor ever informed the District of a date when he anticipated being able to return to work or indicated how long a leave of absence might have to last."

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