Wednesday, October 3, 2012

List of "Reasonable" Accommodations Just Got Longer

Dear Santa,

Please bring us a once-and-for-all list of things that courts have determined to be “reasonable” accommodations under the various disability laws.  It’s just too hard to guess what might be added next.

Your pals,
Employers Everywhere

Sound familiar?  For years, businesses across the country have been genuinely confused about how far they have to go to accommodate disabled workers.  Just when it seems that they have the accommodation process figured out, along comes a decision that turns the room upside down.  Hold onto your hats, because a federal appeals court recently did it again.

Clarice Sanchez was employed by the U. S. Forest Service in Lufkin, Texas.  A fall down a flight of stairs left her with about a 50% loss of vision.  After being out of work for almost two months, Sanchez returned and requested a transfer to the agency’s office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  According to Sanchez, she needed the transfer because there were no doctors in Lufkin qualified to provide the specialized therapy she needed.  Also, she had family and friends in Albuquerque who could provide support during her recovery, and Lufkin lacked the public transportation she needed due to her injuries making driving unadvisable.

The Department of Agriculture refused the transfer request, saying that it was an unreasonable one because the transfer would not affect Sanchez’s ability to perform the essential functions of her job.  The agency pointed out that prior federal decisions did not obligate an employer to grant a transfer request solely to allow the worker to obtain medical treatment.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, had other ideas.  It rejected the agency’s arguments and set the case for trial.  Noting that the EEOC’s regulations recognize medical transfers as potential reasonable accommodations, the court said, “a transfer accommodation for medical care or treatment is not per se unreasonable, even if an employee is able to perform the essential functions of her job without it.”

So what can employers learn from this decision?  First, don’t get so focused on the “essential functions” trees that you lose sight of the forest.  This decision signals that at least some courts will require employers to consider issues beyond just whether the accommodation request is tied to the essential functions of the job.  Second, it’s a brave new world out there, so go ahead and add medical transfers to the list of potential reasonable accommodations.  Finally, check with your attorney or go to the EEOC’s website (www.eeoc.gov) for guidance when making disability-related employment decisions.

(The case is Sanchez v. Vilsack, and the decision is here.)

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