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Accommodation denied? Beware retaliation suit

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employers sometimes forget that merely asking for a reasonable accommodation may be a protected activity. That’s true even if it turns out that the employee isn’t disabled and therefore isn’t due an accommodation.

Anything an employer does that could be construed as punishment for requesting help could spell trouble—and a retaliation lawsuit.

Warn all your managers and supervisors against making life more difficult for someone whose accommodations request was denied.

Recent case: Biljana Ragusa worked as a public school teacher. She had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and returned to work two months later. Because she had residual effects from the surgery, she asked for a reasonable accommodation—being able to work in a single classroom for the entire day so that she didn’t have to walk from room to room.

Instead, she was transferred to an assignment in which she had to teach in four different classrooms during a single day. She was also assigned a grade level she had never taught and a subject in which she did not hold a certification.

She sued, claiming all this was retaliation for seeking an accommodation.

The school district argued that Ragusa wasn’t disabled, so it was under no obligation to accommodate her.

The court agreed, to a point. It was true that Ragusa wasn’t entitled to an accommodation. However, that didn’t mean her employer was allowed to punish her for asking for one. And changing her working conditions in a way that seemed designed to set her up to fail would probably dissuade a reasonable employee from asking in the first place.

The court sent the case to trial for a jury to decide. (Ragusa v. Malverne Union Free School, No. 08-5367, 2nd Cir., 2010)

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