When companies change management, employees sometimes believe it is unfair to hold them to higher performance standards than those required by their former supervisors. When it comes to accommodations made to disabled persons, employees sometimes allege that an employer’s initial decision to grant a requested accommodation means that the employer cannot change its mind in the future. A new unpublished decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals makes clear that the employer can revoke approval of a prior accommodation as long as it can demonstrate an undue hardship.
In Hartwell v. Spencer, the plaintiff was a firefighter who claimed that medication used to treat his ADHD and anxiety disorder caused morning drowsiness that resulted in chronic tardiness. While his former supervisor allowed the plaintiff to arrive late at work or to have a co-worker cover for him, a new supervisor stopped this practice, reprimanding and eventually terminating him for tardiness. The plaintiff filed suit under the ADA, alleging failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
After his complaint was dismissed, the plaintiff appealed claiming that the fire department’s prior accommodation of his tardiness demonstrated that this was a reasonable accommodation. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, noting that if an employer exceeded ADA requirements in the past, this does not mean that it must continue to do so. The court took a fresh look at the requested accommodation and concluded that punctuality is an essential job function for a firefighter. The Eleventh Circuit also noted that requiring other employees coming off long shifts to cover for the plaintiff presented an undue hardship to them and their employer.
In some prior cases, federal courts have held that a long-term accommodation of a disability by an employer is evidence of its reasonableness, when that employer now tries to end the accommodation. That reasoning may apply in some circumstances, but as in this case if the previously granted accommodation is clearly unfeasible, the employer retains the right to end it.