The ADA requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with a disability, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship.
A recent 7th Circuit case sheds light on the extent of an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s accommodation request. In Gratzl v. Office of the Chief Judges of the 12th, 18th, 19th and 22nd Judicial Circuits (601 F.3d 674, 7th Cir. 2010), the court held that an employer’s offer of accommodation may be reasonable even if it is not the accommodation that the employee requests.
Job changed, condition didn’t
Jeanne Gratzl suffered from incontinence due to pregnancy complications. Gratzl worked as a court reporter exclusively in the court’s “control room,” which did not require in-court reporting. The job in the control room was ideal, as no one at work even knew of Gratzl’s medical condition.
In 2006, Gratzl’s position was eliminated and she, along with all the other court reporters, was required to rotate through courtrooms as well as the control room.
Gratzl believed she couldn’t perform in-court reporting in her new position because of her incontinence. She disclosed her medical condition to the chief judge. Gratzl asked the court to accommodate her incontinence by allowing her to work exclusively in the control room.
Instead, the court proposed several other accommodations:
- Assign Gratzl only to juvenile courtrooms, which did not have jury trials
- Assign her to courtrooms with an adjacent restroom
- Allow her to avoid working in courtrooms in which a trial was scheduled
- Not assign Gratzl to courtrooms located far from the restrooms
- Enable Gratzl to alert the presiding judge that she needed a break.
When Gratzl rejected all those offers, the court terminated her.
Court goes to court
Gratzl sued under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, claiming the court failed to accommodate her medical condition.
At trial, the district court held that Gratzl hadn’t established that she was disabled under the ADA and granted summary judgment to her employer.
The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court, holding that Gratzl was not a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA and that she was not protected by the ADA because she rejected the court’s proposed accommodations.
The 7th Circuit focused on whether rotating through courtrooms was an essential function of the court reporter job.
To determine whether a particular duty is an essential function, the court considered the employee’s job description, the employer’s opinion, the amount of time spent performing the function, the consequences for not requiring the employee to perform the duty and past and current work experiences.
The court held that in-court reporting was an essential function of the job of being a court reporter and that Gratzl failed to establish she was qualified for the job because she could not rotate through the courtrooms.
Reasonable, not perfect
In addition, the 7th Circuit held that Gratzl was not entitled to relief under the ADA because she refused her employer’s offers of reasonable accommodations.
Gratzl’s sole accommodation request was to restore her eliminated position in the control room. The court said that was unreasonable. An employer does not need to create a new job for the employee or strip a current job of its principal duties to accommodate the employee.
Furthermore, an employer doesn’t need to provide the exact accommodation requested by the employee. Instead, the employer must only provide some reasonable accommodation to the employee.
Accordingly, the court fulfilled its obligations under the ADA when it offered Gratzl several reasonable accommodations that would allow her to perform in-court reporting.
What the decision means for employers
This case illustrates the delicate situation that employers are placed in when an employee asks for accommodations under the ADA. This decision is favorable to employers, since it shows that employers have control over the kinds of accommodations they will provide.
However, don’t interpret this ruling as permission to automatically deny an employee’s request. When an employee requests an accommodation because of a disability, you have a duty to engage in an interactive process and work with the employee to provide a reasonable accommodation, even if it is not the exact accommodation that the employee had requested. That’s exactly what the employer in Gratzl did.
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