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Disability still your call, even if co-workers ‘Accommodate’

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Sometimes, supervisors are the last to know an employee wants an accommodation for a disability. Instead, the employee may be making her own accommodations by asking co-workers for help. Of course, the help may end up keeping them from doing their own jobs.

What should you do when you find out? The best way to respond is to take a fresh look at the situation. You have the right to determine for yourself whether the employee is disabled and whether the accommodation she has arranged is truly reasonable. If it isn’t, and no other reasonable accommodation is available, you can discharge the employee.

Recent case: Sharyn Gruener worked for Ohio Casualty when she underwent double knee replacement surgery to cope with a degenerative joint disease. Her doctors told her she had to limit squatting, kneeling and crawling.

A year later, the company transferred her to a computer services position, which required “extensive physical exertion such as walking, standing, stooping, climbing or lifting ….” Rather than tell her supervisors about her medical limitations, she asked co-workers to lift heavy monitors and crawl on the floor to plug in equipment.

When her supervisors found out how others helped her perform her job, Gruener had to get a new medical certification. The company concluded having her co-workers do all the heavy lifting wasn’t reasonable. It fired her for being unable to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without accommodations. Gruener sued for interference with her ADA rights.

But a jury decided she wasn’t disabled, and therefore wasn’t entitled to any accommodations at all. She appealed, arguing that the jury was wrong and that her employer had regarded her as disabled. The 6th Circuit refused to reverse the decision. (Gruener v. Ohio Casualty Insurance, No. 05-4220, 6th Cir., 2008)

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