Sometimes, the simplest mistakes are the most expensive. When faced with the decision of firing an assembly-line worker or giving her a chair to ease her arthritis, this company took the litigious route—and paid the price …
Case in Point: Delores Vaughn worked on the assembly line for Sharp Manufacturing. When the arthritis in her legs got bad, her doctor said she needed to sit during the workday. He suggested she be given a stool to sit on as an accommodation.
But the company refused, saying it was an “essential function” of her job to stand all day. Vaughn filed a complaint with the EEOC, arguing that the company failed to provide her with a “reasonable accommodation” for her disability, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The company eventually fired her, claiming that she couldn’t do the essential function of her job, so she wasn’t protected by the ADA.
Ten days after she was fired, Vaughn filed for Social Security Disability Insurance, claiming she was disabled. The company argued that this filing proved that she was totally disabled, unable to work and, therefore, not protected by the ADA. Vaughn countered that a simple four-legged stool accommodation was all she needed to be able to perform the job’s essential function. (EEOC vs. Sharp Mfg. Co. of Am., W.B. Tenn., 2/1/08).
How Did This Case End … And What Lessons Can Be Learned?
The court rejected the company’s argument and sided with Vaughn. It noted that Vaughn had previously sat on a stool while she worked on the assembly line. Plus, nowhere in her job description did it state that standing was an essential function of the job.
The court said that at the time Vaughn filed her EEOC claim, she could have performed the job if Sharp had provide her with the stool. The record showed that after Vaughn filed her claim, her arthritis worsened during the next 10 days so that her EEOC claim and her subsequent Social Security disability claim were not inconsistent.
3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court
- Be consistent. Courts
look to employer’s previous actions for consistency. If you’ve provided
a reasonable accommodation in the past and then deny it, your
inconsistent actions will be judged against you.
- Be reasonable. This
whole lawsuit was over a stool. I’ll bet a wooden stool ($19.99 at Bed
Bath & Beyond) was far less expensive than the cost of litigation
and the bad publicity that it brought with it. It was also a lot less
expensive than the first five minutes of their defense attorney’s time.
- List essential functions in job descriptions. If you plan to use it as a defense, you must list it. It must be specifically listed as an essential element of the job.