- Blog post
ADA: Perfume leads to expensive disability settlement
What would you do if an employee told you a co-worker’s perfume was making her sick?
It might be tempting to ignore the complaint as whining or exaggeration, but that course of action could get you in trouble.
Witness the lawsuit against Detroit city government by a planning department employee whose allergies were allegedly inflamed by air freshener spray and a co-worker’s perfume.
The co-worker had already agreed to stop spraying the deodorizer in the office, but kept wearing the perfume. Now the city has agreed to pay $100,000 to make the employee’s lawsuit, filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act, go away.
Can an allergy be disabling?
So is an allergic reaction to smelly perfume really a disability?
It may seem like a stretch, but as this case shows, it may very well be. For ADA purposes, the EEOC defines disabilities as impairments that “substantially limit major life activities such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, performing manual tasks, learning, caring for oneself, and working” (emphasis added). So if the allergies are severe enough to keep the worker from doing his or her job — as was alleged in this case — it probably qualifies as a disability.
And in that case, asking another worker not to wear her perfume in the office does look a pretty reasonable accommodation.
It’s easy for manager to make a bad call in a situation like this. When people think of disabilities, they usually think of something like paraplegia or blindness. But under the ADA, the word has a very specific meaning — and it’s incumbent on managers to know it.