When it comes to an employer’s reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the medical profession has historically enjoyed a level of regulatory and judicial deference not applicable to other industries. In many situations, the EEOC and federal courts have not questioned employers’ assertions that requested accommodations are unreasonable because they pose a threat to patient safety. Last month, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded employers that this deference is not automatic.
In Osborne v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., a deaf plasma technician challenged her potential employer’s denial of requested accommodations on the basis that she could not safely monitor the plasma collection area because she could not hear alarms on the machinery used in the process. The plaintiff claimed that the employer rejected a number of proposed accommodations, including modification of the machinery to provide visual rather than aural alarms, and installation of a pager system for plasma donors. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the basis that the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of the job, and presented a direct threat to patient safety.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the matter for trial. In its decision, the court noted that the employer did not offer evidence that the proposed equipment modifications were impossible or even unreasonable. The Tenth Circuit also rejected the employer’s contention that the plaintiff’s disability created a direct threat to the health and safety of plasma donors. The opinion included statistical information showing an infinitesimal risk of significant adverse reactions occurring during plasma donations.
In this decision, the court was simply unwilling to accept an argument that any risk to patient safety, no matter how small, justifies rejection of a disabled applicant’s or employee’s accommodation request. While courts and the EEOC will defer to such judgment in the event of a significant medical threat, this must be something more than a de minimis risk to patient health. Medical employers responding to ADA accommodation claims should be prepared to demonstrate statistical, clinical or other objective information serving as the basis for their conclusion that the requested accommodation presents a real and direct threat to patient safety.