Setting a ‘no restrictions’ policy could open you to ADA lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Rhonda Otting took leave to control her epilepsy through surgery and medication. When the doctor released her to return to work as a J.C. Penney sales associate, he set one restriction: no ladder climbing.

But J.C. Penney refused to allow Otting to return to work. It cited a store policy that prevents workers from returning while they're under any medical restriction. Otting was fired and given long-term disability benefits. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and won $100,000 in punitive damages.

The store had argued that Otting wasn't disabled, pointing to last year's Supreme Court decision in Sutton v. United Airlines Inc. that said the ADA usually doesn't cover people who have physical conditions that are correctable, say with medication or eyeglasses. But this court said Otting is disabled because her seizures were frequent and severe enough to limit her major life activities. (Otting v. J.C. Penney Co., Nos. 99-2679/2680, 8th Cir., 2000)

Advice: If you have a "no restrictions" policy on the books, drop it now. J.C. Penney messed up by making no attempt to accommodate Otting's very limited restriction. It simply fell back on its policy of not letting employees work with any medical restriction. No company policy will trump its obligations to accommodate employees under the ADA.

The other lesson here: Workers can be still be covered under the ADA if their disabling condition is partially controlled by medication. The key issue: Whether the worker remains "substantially limited" in a major life activity even after taking the medication. Determine the extent of an employee's ailment and how, if at all, medication makes it less severe.

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