Sometimes being "nice" brings you grief under ADA guidelines

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

Generous employer dodged first ADA bullet – but not second

Here’s a case where a well-meaning employer created a temporary new position to accommodate an employee who injured himself on the job, only to learn that the fellow expected the position to be permanent. Things got really ugly when he found out it wasn’t.

Hurt while heavy lifting

John Watkins worked as a customer service representative (CSR) for a firm that supplies businesses with uniform rental and laundry services. Watkins drove a truck and made deliveries.
One day Watkins injured his wrist while doing some lifting. As a result he couldn’t perform the basic functions of his job. Watkins’s employer accommodated him under ADA law. Assuming his wrist would heal in a few weeks, the company created a temporary new position in which he was assigned to make “special deliveries” – which involved no heavy lifting.
Watkins was paid his usual rate. After about two months, his condition hadn’t improved. So his boss told him it would be too great a burden on the company to continue paying him his former salary, which included a commission from his old route.
Watkins’s boss assured him that the company liked him and didn’t want to lose him. So he told Watkins that until he got better he could take an office job – involving mostly telephone work, which paid about $11 an hour – substantially less than his former salary.
Watkins declined the offer and went on disability. The employer kept his old job open for an entire year, hoping he’d return. Unfortunately, even after a year Watkins remained disabled.

An ADA lawsuit waiting to happen?

So the embittered employee socked the company with an ADA lawsuit. He claimed that by yanking the “special delivery” job his employer failed to follow ADA guidelines and thereby violated the American Disabilities Act.
The court found in the company’s favor for two reasons:
It endured a financial hardship for two months by giving Watson the “special deliveries” job. It offered him another position and even kept his job open for a full year. It showed that keeping Watson in the “special deliveries” job long term was an unreasonable hardship that would have put the company at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

Lesson learned

Make no assumptions about when people will recover from injuries. And think twice about creating temporary new positions for temporarily disabled employees that aren’t cost-justified. Here we saw that when a company taketh away what it giveth, the employee can become angry enough to file an ADA lawsuit.


Watkins, determined to nail the company on something, didn’t stop with an ADAlawsuit. He charged FLSA overtime violations as well. At first the employer didn’t take them seriously. Watkins was a commissioned salesperson. He wasn’t entitled to overtime. Or was he?
Turns out, even though Watkins’s deliveries were all made intrastate, some of the orders were called in from out-of-state. According to an appeals court, the job was therefore under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, which meant Watkins’s case had merit.
Watkins won the FLSA case on a technicality. That was doubly bad news for the company because it opened the door for other CSRs to file their own wage-and-hour claims.
This ADA lawsuit is a great reminder about the damage that disgruntled employees can cause. And about how companies can unintentionally anger employees by failing to manage expectations about ADA compliance.
If Watkins’s company had simply given him a desk job at lower pay immediately after his injury, perhaps he’d have happily taken it. Or he’d have taken disability leave. Either way, he might not have had the expectation that he could continue getting paid for a job he was physically incapable of doing. And perhaps he’d never have filed an ADA lawsuit.

Cite: Watkins v. Ameripride Services, U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, No. 02-56082, 7/6/04.
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