Employers Should be Careful When Refusing Job Restructuring as an Undue Hardship or Claiming That a Job Function is Essential

Hard and fast rules are difficult to come by when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Two seemingly clear rules that employers often turn to in evaluating their obligations under the ADA is that an employer is generally not required to provide an accommodation to a disable employee that imposes an “undue hardship”, nor is it required to remove an employee’s essential job function as an accommodation for a disability.  However, the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care VII, LLC, 769 F.3d 958, 959-60 (7th Cir. 2014), illustrates that determining when an accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” or when a job duty is “essential” is not always an easy task.

In Kauffman, the plaintiff worked as one of two hairdressers at a nursing home outside the town of Sullivan, in south-central Illinois. Two days per week, the plaintiff would wheel residents one by one in their wheelchairs from their rooms to the nursing home’s beauty shop, do their hair, then wheel them back to their rooms. On the other days of her four-day workweek she mainly did the hair of residents who could get to the beauty parlor by themselves or did the hair of those residents confined to their rooms.  Consequently, she rarely had to push wheelchairs on those days.

In late December 2010, plaintiff had a hysterectomy due to a prolapsed bladder which required reconstruction of her bladder and installation of a mesh lining installed in her abdomen.  After her operation, plaintiff’s doctor informer her that she could no longer push and lift people into wheelchairs because of the risk of tearing the mesh lining.  When she informed her employer that she could no longer push wheelchairs, she was told that, so long as she had the restriction, she could not be employed.  Plaintiff quit. During her absence, the remaining hairdresser received assistance from others at the home pushing residents to and from the hair salon.

Plaintiff sued the nursing home under the ADA for failing to accommodate her disability.  The nursing home asserted the two seemingly clear rules as defenses to Plaintiff’s lawsuit: (1) Plaintiff’s wheelchair duties were essential functions of her job which the home was not required to reassign and (2) accommodating her restrictions would have imposed a hardship on the home.  The trial court agreed and dismissed Plaintiff’s case.  However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed that decision and sent the case back for trial.

Two of the three appeals court judges on the panel believed that the nursing home had not established that accommodating Plaintiff’s pushing and lifting restrictions imposed an “undue hardship” on the nursing home.  They opined that the amount of time Plaintiff spent pushing residents in wheelchairs appeared minimal compared to her other duties, and speculated that the nursing home must have others whose sole jobs it was to push residents in wheelchairs from place to place.  They pointed to the assistance the other hairdresser received from others when Plaintiff quit.  These judges also suggested that lowering sinks might have been an accommodation that could have accommodated Plaintiff’s lifting restriction.

The other appellate judge viewed the case differently.  Although he agreed that the case should not be dismissed, he viewed the primary question as whether the Plaintiff’s wheelchair functions were an essential function of her job.  He disagreed with other two judges’ assertion that just because others could perform Plaintiff’s wheelchair duties, the accommodation was reasonable.  In his opinion, the fact that could have been easily accommodated did not change the fact that the nursing home was not required to reassign what might be an essential job function to others.

As the Kauffman case demonstrates, the ADA’s requirements continue to challenge both employers and courts.  Employers dealing with accommodation questions should consult with legal counsel; especially when dealing with a decision that could result in the loss of an employee’s job.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including those relating to the ADA, for almost sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.