Three things bosses should never say unless they want an ADA lawsuit

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

ADA lawsuits come about when managers dodge, dismiss or mishandle requests for accommodations.

Based on our review of recent cases, here are three things supervisors say in response to ADA requests that can get their employers in trouble and expose them to ADA lawsuits:

1. “It was good enough last time”

A supervisor’s instinct may be to do what worked in the past. But being ADA compliant is a case-by-case job.
Not all disabled individuals are the same. A factory foreman was responsible for walking around a large plant, overseeing workers. Unfortunately, after two hip operations he couldn’t stand or walk for long periods of time.
He requested a four-wheeled golf cart as an accommodation. The cart could get him around the plant, he said. But his boss balked at this request. Instead, he got a smaller three-wheeled cart.

The foreman, a big man, was physically uncomfortable in the smaller cart. He asked again for a larger cart. And again he was turned down. So he filed an ADA lawsuit, claiming disability discrimination. And he won.
In reaching its decision, the court provided a good illustration of how employers should engage in a dialogue with employees who request accommodation under ADA guidelines.

According to the judge, the employer had a duty to engage in a good-faith effort to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential compliance actions that could overcome those limitations. The plaintiff produced evidence showing that the employer failed to participate in an interactive process.

Apparently, the boss was fixed on a three-wheeled solution. He’d seen it before and assumed it would work this time and be ADA compliant. He didn’t want to give the matter any further thought. That was a mistake. He should have engaged a dialogue to help understand whether the foreman could perform his essential functions with any reasonable accommodation, not just the one that worked last time.

Cite: Bartee v. Michelin North America.

2. “You look fine to me”

We’ve seen a number of cases resulting in an ADA lawsuit where an employee had a disability that wasn’t evident at first, and as a result suffered disability discrimination on the job.

In one, an employee who struggled with mental illness was assigned to a new supervisor. The new boss couldn’t believe the employee didn’t have to work any overtime hours, especially during the busy season. In fact, her doctor said she was allowed to work only 40 hours a week.

The boss bullied the employee into working overtime. The stress aggravated her disability. She quit, filed a lawsuit and won more than $500,000.

In this case, the boss should have consulted with HR, which had a doctor’s note and a description of the employee’s accommodation on file.

Remind managers they’re not doctors and they don’t have to diagnose anyone. When an employee presents a doctor’s note and a legitimate excuse, an employer must see if it can provide reasonable accommodation under ADA requirements.

Cite: Blockel v. J.C. Penney Co.

3. “That’ll never fly”

We’ve seen cases where busy managers dismiss ADA compliance out of hand because they’re afraid it will cause disruptions or take too much time.

An employee with disabilities from multiple sclerosis asked to be removed from a high-stress project and assigned to low-stress work within her department.

Her boss’s reply: “No.”

The worker made a good case for how this accommodation could work. But her boss wouldn’t budge. There were several projects going on at once, the boss’s plate was full and she refused to consider the request.
The stress took its toll on the employee, her performance suffered and she got fired. Next, she filed an ADA lawsuit. And a jury awarded her $3.5 million.

In this case, the court noted that the employee should have been assigned to the new, low-stress job. And if that didn’t work, then the employer could have legally terminated her employment under ADA guidelines.

Cite: Gagliardo v. Connaught Laboratories.
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