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Monday, 04 March 2013 15:37

Job Transfer May Be Considered a Reasonable Accommodation

Has an employee ever requested a transfer to another office as an accommodation of his or her disability?  This type of accommodation was the subject of a recent United States Court of Appeals decision, which employers should consider when dealing with similar requests.

 

Factual Background

The employee was a secretary of the United States Forest Service in Lufkin, Texas.  While working, she fell and suffered an irreversible brain injury.  The injury caused her to lose half of her field of vision.  She also had difficulty reading, and struggled with bright lights.  She could not work at a computer for more than 45 minutes at any given time.

 

The employee claimed there was a lack of public transportation in Lufkin, and there were no doctors in Lufkin who were qualified to provide the specialized therapy she needed to adjust to her injury.  She found qualified doctors in Albuquerque, New Mexico (which happened to be where she had family and friends).  As a result, she requested a transfer to the Albuquerque office as an accommodation of her disability.

 

In response to her request, the employee was temporarily assigned to a 120-day detail in Albuquerque.  While there, a specialist taught her techniques to aid her reading.  The employee applied for two equivalent-pay positions that became available in Albuquerque.  At least one co-worker objected to the employee being permanently assigned to the Albuquerque office because she was disruptive and inefficient.  Despite meeting the minimum qualifications for those positions, she was not hired to fill either position.  Ultimately, the employee accepted a lower-paying position in the Albuquerque office, and then filed a disability discrimination suit against her employer.

 

The Court's Analysis

In defending against the disability discrimination suit, the employer argued that a job transfer is only required where the employee's disability prevents him or her from performing the essential functions of the current position.  This argument was rejected by the Court.

 

Citing regulations of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and various appellate decisions (including the 7th Circuit, which governs federal matters in Wisconsin), the Court held that "as a matter of law transferring an employee for the purposes of treatment or therapy may be a reasonable accommodation..." even if an employee is able to perform the essential functions of her job without it.

 

Defenses

In this type of case employers may raise the defenses that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship and/or that reassignment was not necessary for the employee to access treatment.  Neither defense was raised by the employer.

 

What Does This Mean for Employers?

Employers should carefully evaluate any request for accommodations by a disabled employee, especially if it involves a transfer to another position within the employer.  Is the employee disabled?  Is the employee qualified to perform the essential functions of the job?  Is the request for accommodations reasonable?  Is the requested accommodation necessary?  Would the requested accommodation impose an undue hardship upon the employer?  These and other relevant questions are fact intensive and require careful evaluation, both factually and legally.

 

For more information about this Employment Law Alert, or any labor and employment law question, please contact Attorney Peter Culp or another employment law attorney with the Dempsey Law Firm, LLP.

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