Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a final list of what the courts say are “reasonable” accommodations under the disability laws? Employers are truly confused about how far they must legally go to accommodate disabled employees. Well, grab your pencil and the list. One court recently added a new one. And it’s a shocker …
Case in Point: Clarice Sanchez, an administrative employee at the Department of Agriculture office in Lufkin, Texas, fell down a flight of stairs at work. She lost the left half of her field of vision. Seven weeks later, she returned to work. But that wasn’t the end.
Sanchez then requested a transfer from Lufkin to the agency office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her reasoning: There were no doctors in Lufkin qualified to provide the specialized therapy she needed to adjust to her injury. She also said Lufkin lacked public transportation, plus Albuquerque was home to several family and friends who could support her during her vision recovery.
The Ag Department denied her transfer request, saying it was unreasonable because the transfer was not tied to Sanchez’s need for fulfill the essential functions of her job. The agency argued that federal disability discrimination law doesn’t obligate an employer to grant an employee's request for a transfer solely for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment. (Sanchez v. Vilsack, 10th Cir., 9/19/12)
What happened next? The court rejected the agency’s argument and sent the case to trial. It sided with the EEOC and ruled that, “a transfer accommodation for medical care or treatment is not per se unreasonable, even if an employee is able to perform the essential functions of her job without it.”
3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court
- Go beyond the “essential functions” test. As this case shows, when an employee has requested a reasonable accommodation, the request no longer has to be tied just to the essential functions of the job. You now must consider other issues. This is why every reasonable accommodation situation under the disability laws must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
- Grant medical treatment transfers. Add this new one to your list of reasonable accommodations. It’s no longer about just providing equipment or changing shifts. It is now about changing locations, too.
- Let the EEOC be your guide. The EEOC had already recognized medical transfers in its regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Always check out www.eeoc.gov before making employment decisions under the ADA. (Another good resource: The Job Accommodation Network.)