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Managing Employee Disabilities: Accommodate … Don’t Dictate

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in Case In Point

Nike had it just right. When an employee has a known medical condition and requests a reasonable accommodation, JUST DO IT! Too often, accommodating an employee's disability becomes a power struggle between the employee and the company. But, next time the decision is in your court, just remember this: Employees always have the greatest power of all because they can drag your company’s wallet and reputation into court.

Case in Point: Marsha Eagle was a pharmacy technician at a Michigan hospital and had a very good performance record. She suffered from systemic lupus, an autoimmune deficiency disease that causes fatigue and joint pain. The hospital had granted her initial request for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so she would not work more than eight hours in one shift. She was also granted intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to deal with her lupus flare-ups.

Eagle was often assigned dispensing duties, which required her to be on her feet for extended periods of time. According to Eagle, she had performed dispensing duties for three days in a row, which exacerbated her lupus symptoms and prompted her to seek a change of assignment to perform intravenous admixture (IVAD) duties. The hospital denied her request on the ground that shifting her to a different assignment was not part of her established reasonable accommodation.

When Eagle saw she was still assigned dispensing duties for the fourth day in a row, she told her supervisor she was “calling off” under the FMLA and walked off the job. The hospital fired Eagle for “gross misconduct related to fraudulently using Family Medical Leave.”

She filed a disability discrimination claim in federal court. The hospital argued that Eagle’s request to change to dispensing IVAD was an invalid request for a reasonable accommodation because the IVAD duties still required standing and walking. However, the court sided with Eagle and sent the case to the jury. The judge noted that a pharmacist testified that dispensing duties require pharmacy technicians to be on their feet for roughly 81% of a shift while IVAD duties call for walking or standing only about 50% of the time. (Eagle v. Hurley Med. Ctr., E.D. Mich., No. 4:12-cv-13704, 6/27/13)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going To Court

  1. Just. Employees' medical conditions don’t “just” either trigger the ADA or the FMLA. As in this case, there was an overlap of legal rights. This creates complicated layers of facts and laws. Just play it safe and always reach out to your attorney for legal counsel in these complex cases.
  2. Do. The court questioned whether or not the hospital engaged in a good-faith interactive conversation. There is never any harm in taking this action. So, to be safe, just “do” it, consider the request and document it.
  3. It. Whatever “it” is that the employee requests, first consider “it” either a request for another reasonable accommodation or an extension of the first request. Either way, always engage in the good-faith interactive process. Unfortunately, the hospital thought that the reasonable accommodation it granted Eagle should be narrowly defined. Now, a jury will determine who wins this power struggle.  

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