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Bridge Worker With Fear of Heights Deemed Eligible for ADA Accommodations

    Client Alerts
  • June 10, 2011

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees in order to allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. However, employers are not required to excuse employees from performing such essential functions, or allocate them to co-workers. A new decision from the usually employer-friendly Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals shows that in some cases, the accommodation obligation can extend to what appears to be a fundamental part of the job.

In Miller v. Illinois Dep't of Transp., the plaintiff was a bridge construction and maintenance worker who was diagnosed with acrophobia. He requested that he be excused from duties that required him to work at heights above 20 feet. The employer refused, claiming that the ability to perform tasks at this height was an essential job function for a bridge worker.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed, remanding the claim for a jury trial. While the ability to work at heights may ordinarily be an essential function, in this case, the plaintiff demonstrated that crew members regularly exchanged work tasks among themselves. For instance, one employee swapped tasks that aggravated his allergies. While someone in the crew clearly needed to perform work at heights, the fact that crew members were permitted to exchange jobs among themselves meant that it was not an essential job function for all employees.

The employer could have avoided this outcome if it adopted and enforced work rules requiring all employees to perform all essential aspects of the job. The informal job swap system in place required the employer to consider reassigning jobs at height to other employees as an ADA reasonable accommodation.