ADA Compliance: What is a 'Qualified Individual'

by on January 14, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Being ADA compliant doesn’t mean “no discipline” for people with disabilities

This means that if you can show, documentation in hand, that an employee was incompetent or presented a significant safety hazard, you can usually dodge an Americans with Disabilities Act bullet. But if your judgment about the employee’s qualification goes awry, you can be in for trouble.

Under ADA Compliance, Is everyone “qualified”?
Here’s a case where an employee was ruled not qualified, and couldn’t claim ADA protection.

Etta Joyner had to be taken to the hospital again. The paramedics found her wandering around a supermarket parking lot near where she’d parked her delivery truck. Now Etta was back at work and talking with her supervisor, Jasmine Green.

“You should think about retiring, Etta,” Jasmine said. “You can take early retirement and still get most of your pension. Or, we can bring you into the office for a year or two until you retire. You can’t be driving a truck anymore with your blood sugar problem.”

“I’m embarrassed,” Etta said. “All the trouble I caused those nice paramedics, and you. But I think if I’m more careful to always carry a candy bar in case my blood sugar goes down, I can still drive.”

“Etta, this is the third time we’ve had to go look for you,” Jasmine said. “It’s not safe for you or other drivers.”

“I hate to be stubborn, but I don’t want to retire yet, and I certainly don’t want to have to come to an office every day,” Etta said.

Jasmine refused to give ground, and reluctantly had to terminate Etta when she wouldn’t budge, either.
Etta filed an ADA lawsuit against the company for disability discrimination. But the company won, on grounds that because Etta’s condition made her unsafe at the wheel, she wasn’t a “qualified individual” with a disability. She wasn’t qualified to do her job anymore, and she refused a reasonable accommodation, so she had no case.
(Burden v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co.)

ADA Compliant Companies and “Qualified Individuals”

Now here’s a case on the other side of the coin.

Scenario: “Do you really think you should be coming back here,” Operations VP Biff Allstadt asked Sarah Hughes. “After what you did… I mean what happened…”

Sarah looked at him nervously, but resolutely. “If you can’t say it, I can. I tried to kill myself. But yes, my doctor has cleared me to work, and I would like to.”

“I don’t know,” Biff said. “Isn’t a suicide attempt a pretty fair indicator of bad judgment? Your job is handling money, and that requires somebody with good judgment. I don’t think I could have you back in the finance job, and there’s nothing else available.”

Biff terminated Sarah, and she sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and won. The court said Biff had no proof that Sarah was unqualified for her old job, and so even if her depression constituted a disability, he was obliged to take her back.
(Chandler v. Specialty Tires of America)

How the supervisor slipped up: Biff assumed that whatever irresponsibility Sarah showed in her personal life – if any – would show up at work. He had no reason to draw that conclusion.

ADA Guidelines for Managers
It’s better to err on the side of assuming that a disabled worker is qualified, unless you have a clear safety or performance reason to think otherwise.

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