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Tenth Circuit Says Discrimination Law Requires Accommodation to Allow Employee to Receive Medical Treatment

    Client Alerts
  • October 19, 2012

Federal disability discrimination laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations that allow the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the job. What happens when the employee can perform the job without accommodation, but the requested measures are needed for medical treatment of the disabling condition? Last month, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that employers are required to consider providing such accommodations.

In Sanchez v. Vilsack, the plaintiff was a U.S. Forest Service employee who suffered a brain injury that limited her field of vision. She requested a transfer to a larger city with physicians capable of providing therapy for her condition. When the transfer was denied, she sued under the Rehabilitation Act (this law covers federal employees, and is interpreted similarly to the Americans with Disabilities Act), alleging failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The district court dismissed the claim on the basis that the plaintiff was capable of performing the essential functions of her job without the transfer.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the lower court decision, remanding the matter for a determination on the reasonableness of the accommodation request. The court noted EEOC and other regulations that mandate accommodations that are not directly related to job performance, such as modification of break rooms. Federal disability laws require more than equal treatment of disabled and non-disabled employees. In some situations, employers are required to take steps to meet the needs of disabled employees beyond their direct ability to accomplish work tasks.