I’m neither a doctor nor a meteorologist but an employment lawyer. And, like the First Circuit Court of Appeals in this recent decision, I struggle with what the employer in Puerto Rico could have done differently to accommodate one of its workers.
According to the opinion, the employee worked with medical records at a hospital. In September 2017, there was a hurricane. The medical records got wet. In October 2017, the plaintiff gave the defendant a medical certificate from her doctor explaining that because of “a respiratory condition,” she “should not be exposed to vapors, odors, smoke and/or areas of high humidity” and “must have a reasonable accommodation.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act tasks employers with providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to enable them to perform the essential functions of the job unless doing so will create an undue hardship. The parties generally discuss possible accommodations through a good-faith interactive process. Often, this involves the employee supplying medical information to the employer to facilitate the process. Ultimately, the accommodation the employer provides does not need to be the employee’s first choice. It just needs to be reasonable.
In the case, the defendant had the plaintiff’s doctor complete a form to help assess her request. Her doctor reaffirmed that the plaintiff must avoid “humid areas which can unleash the worsening of her pulmonary condition.”
After reviewing the plaintiff’s medical documentation, the defendant informed the plaintiff that it could not “comply with” her physician’s “specifications” as “the medical records are not exempt from humidity.”
By this point, we’re into November 2017, when the humidity in Puerto Rico is at its peak. The plaintiff would inevitably be exposed to it at work. So, the defendant informed the plaintiff that it would place her on unpaid leave, which is a reasonable accommodation, until her condition improved, which it apparently did.
But, the plaintiff nonetheless claimed a violation of the ADA.
And she lost.
Even if the defendant unilaterally placed her on unpaid leave, the plaintiff failed to show that another reasonable accommodation existed that would let her do her job within her restrictions. Indeed, where, as here, the employee fails to satisfy her burden of showing that a reasonable accommodation existed, she cannot maintain a claim for failure to engage in an interactive process.