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Say no to accommodations if ‘disability’ barely scratches the surface of credibility

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees have the strangest ideas about what constitutes a disability and whether they are entitled to a reasonable accommodation. For example, many people have minor phobias—let’s say a fear of spiders. That doesn’t mean employers have to provide a spider-free workplace.

You can simply say no to ridiculous requests like the one in the following case.

Recent case: Valerie Calhoun was a mailroom clerk for Freehold-based Foodarama Supermarkets.

Calhoun said her supervisor, Anthony Popolillo, frequently brought cats to his Foodarama office, even though Calhoun had informed him that she suffered from a fear of cats (i.e., ailurophobia). Popolillo sometimes instructed her to stay in the mailroom to avoid “feline encounters.”

In October 2005, Calhoun missed at least one week of work, which she attributed to her fear of Popolillo’s cats. In November, Foodarama terminated Calhoun.

She sued, claiming she had been fired for complaining about the cats. Her lawsuit included a charge of disability discrimination—she said Foodarama had refused to accommodate her disabling ailurophobia.

Unfortunately, Calhoun filed her EEOC complaint on Sept. 21, 2006— 11 days past the close of her 300-day charging period. As a result, the judge was spared the task of deciding whether “cat-phobia” is a cognizable disability under the ADA, a premise he called, rather delicately, “tenuous at best.” Calhoun would have had to show that her fear of cats substantially impaired a major life function. (Calhoun v. Foodarama, No. 07-0999, DC NJ, 2008)

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