In practice, employers have little difficulty accommodating most requests for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If an employee requests a standing desk or short breaks to monitor blood glucose, employers often grant the accommodation without much need for legal analysis. In some cases, however, allowing what appears to be a routine accommodation can result in claims from another employee that the accommodation interferes with his or her own medical condition.
For example, an employee with a seizure disorder meets with human resources and requests that she be allowed to have her service dog accompany her to work. The company confirms the medical need and the fact that the dog is well-behaved and has been trained to detect seizure events before they manifest themselves. However, when the dog begins accompanying the employee to work, a co-worker complains and provides medical information confirming that she has a severe dog allergy and cannot work in an area where dogs are present.
How does an employer balance the interests of the two disabled employees? The initial review should determine whether there are measures that can be taken to accommodate both medical conditions. For example, can the employee with the service animal or her co-worker be relocated to different parts of the building where they will not come into contact with one another? If such steps prove impractical, the EEOC and federal courts provide little guidance as to the priorities given to the two conflicting accommodation requests.
Employers may conclude that if the original accommodation request results in a medical hardship to another employee that cannot be avoided or otherwise accommodated, the initial accommodation request presents an undue hardship as defined under the ADA. The employer and employee may explore whether there are alternative accommodations that can be provided that do not present this health risk to a co-worker.
Employers in these situations should take the time necessary to conduct a thorough evaluation of the situation, including possible accommodation options. Regardless of the outcome, the process should be thoroughly documented. In most circumstances employers and employees should be able to devise measures that meet the needs of all employees. In those rare situations where this cannot be accomplished, employers should be prepared to defend their decisions against potential legal claims from one of the disappointed employees.