Appellate court to ADA plaintiff: “A blind person cannot be an airline pilot…”

Yogurt Burst Cheerios

Continuing with yesterday’s theme of appellate courts peeing on the Cheerios of plaintiffs in failure-to-accommodate cases

Wait, can I say that?

***Checks blogging scriptures***

***burps***

Yep.

Dealing with employees who stress out about work.

Yesterday, I blogged here about how President Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee has zero damns to give about extended leave as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Today, I bring you this recent opinion from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals about how to maybe accommodate an employee whose work causes them to suffer anxiety attacks.

(In keeping with the cynical opening to this post, I’ll permit you all some time go find your HR clutching pearls and clutch them).

Ok. Now, then.

We’ve got a situation where the plaintiff, who works in a call center, and who has already used STD leave and FMLA, has requested a combo of additional leave, flexible scheduling, and modified breaks to accommodate her depression and anxiety attacks.

Well, we know that excessive absenteeism can render an employee with a disability unqualified under the ADA because attendance is usually an essentially job function. Especially when your job is to answer phones at work. So, additional leave would only exacerbate the problem. As to the flexible schedule and modified breaks, where an employee admits that she could not have worked on a regular basis even with her requested accommodations, we know that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job. The call-center plaintiff admitted as much at her deposition:

She explained in her deposition that she needed the modified break schedule to allow her to calm down after stressful calls.  When these calls provoked anxiety attacks, Williams needed to log off of her workstation and cease taking further calls.  In other words, Williams essentially admitted that she could not perform her job duties during her anxiety attacks.    

Williams provided no explanation for how Thompson’s specific recommendation of ten-minute breaks every two hours would alleviate this problem.  Williams admitted in her deposition that she had no way of predicting when her anxiety attacks would occur or how many attacks she would have per day.  Breaks every two hours would therefore be inadequate if Williams suffered from an anxiety attack in between scheduled breaks.   

Does that mean that employers don’t have to accommodate job-related stress?

Well, not exactly.

As I’ve noted before, a disability is a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Working is a major life activity. And, theoretically, it’s possible to accommodate an employee with work-related anxiety.

Indeed, the employer in the call-center case did provide some leave. That’s reasonable. Other options include:

  1. Re-distributing non-essential job functions to others;
  2. EAP referral to help with stress management; and
  3. Transfer to a less-stressful available position for which the employee is qualified

But, the reality is that, well, sometimes it’s not meant to be. I’ll let the Sixth Circuit school you as I throw up a peace sign:

In the end, this case reflects the reality that there are some jobs that a person with disabilities is simply unable to perform.  A blind person cannot be an airline pilot, nor can one with advanced Parkinson’s disease be a neurosurgeon.  Similarly, a person like Williams who reacts to random customer calls with anxiety attacks that require her to log off of her workstation is not capable of performing the essential job functions of an AT&T CSR. 

Updated: