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Disabled Employee is Moved to Light-Duty Work: Can She Demand to Stay There?

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in Case In Point

When employees suffer temporary disabilities, good employers make good-faith efforts to accommodate. Sometimes that includes placing the employee on a light-duty assignment and temporarily cutting out an essential function of her job. But can that employee legally demand that the light-duty job remain permanently? A new ruling this week offers a good lesson – and some extra words to add to your organization’s job descriptions …

Case in Point: Selena worked as a medical assistant at a Washington, D.C. hospital and one of her essential functions was to perform triage on patients. This involves preparing patients to be seen by doctors, escorting patients to exam rooms and recording patients' information on charts. She also worked on billing, assisted nurses, cleaned exam rooms, ordered supplies and answered phones.

Selena developed a nerve condition that prevented her from lifting more than 20 pounds and triaging patients. The hospital initially allowed Selena to modify her duties to periodically excuse her from performing triage. However, it eventually required Selena to return to full duty.

Selena still couldn’t do the triage work, so the hospital terminated her because she could not perform the essential functions of her job. In turn, Selena fired off an ADA lawsuit, alleging the hospital failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. After all, Selena said, she was able to work if she didn’t perform triage and it seemed like the hospital was doing just fine under the circumstances.

A jury sided with the hospital, saying finding that Selena was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA because she could not perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Selena appealed, arguing that the hospital had modified her job description and scheduled her for light-duty work. Now it should be forced to stick with that.

Not so, said the appeals court, upholding the jury verdict. The court said that, contrary to Selena’s argument, “the mere fact that an employer voluntarily accommodates an employee's disability by temporarily eliminating an essential function does not mean that the employer has irrevocably waived the essential function of the job.”

The court added that, “an employee who cannot perform an essential function is not a qualified individual under the ADA, even if the employer previously chose to accommodate the employee by excusing the employee from performing the essential function.” (Hancock v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 2014 BL 3143, D.D.C., 1/7/14)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

  1. Have job descriptions. Duh. It’s 2014 and if you don’t you deserve this lesson in court, too.
  2. Make sure all job descriptions specify “essential functions.” This will go far to shield your organization from ADA lawsuits.
  3. Have Disclaimers: “Temporary modifications to provide reasonable accommodations do not waive any essential functions of the job requirements.” This extra language on a new temporary light duty job description will make it clear to a judge, jury and all employees that your organization still needs an employee who can do the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. While you’re not waiving job requirements you are waiving off liability in 2014!

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