Sometimes employers face requests for reasonable accommodation that do not cost much, but which would materially interfere with the employee’s ability to get their work done. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an undue hardship can be based on such interference as well as cost. This principle was recently recognized in an ADA case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Brown v. Milwaukee Bd. of School Dir., the plaintiff was an assistant principal who suffered a workplace injury to her knee. Her doctor cleared her to return to work with the condition that she not be in the vicinity of potentially unruly students. Because virtually all students have the ability to be unruly at times, the school district declined this request, and terminated the plaintiff after it was unable to locate a suitable alternative position for her. She sued, claiming failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. It concluded that the plaintiff was not able to perform the essential functions of her job, which included intervening in student disputes and disciplinary matters. Although proximity to unruly students itself was not an essential job function, she could not perform the actual functions with the work environment limitations imposed by her physician. The only effective accommodation requested by the plaintiff involved promoting her to a higher position within the school district. The ADA does not require promoting a disabled employee over more qualified candidates as a form of reasonable accommodation.
This case demonstrates that the employer’s reasonable accommodation analysis should not solely focus on the cost of the proposed accommodation. If the requested accommodation is not effective or otherwise interferes with the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions, it is not required regardless of the cost involved. Employers should thoroughly document their analysis of this issue before making any final decision with regard to the accommodation request.