Close counts in horseshoes and accommodating individuals with disabilities at work


Last night, I read a federal appellate court decision in which an employee with back spasms, sciatica, fibromyalgia, and pinched nerves claimed that her employer didn’t give her the help she needed to do her job.

The plaintiff requested a “standing footrest” and “ergonomic chair” as reasonable accommodations. But she claimed she received a “rocking footrest” and a “dilapidated ergonomic chair.”

Now, we know that sometimes just ok is not ok for companies. But, when it comes to providing workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, there can be a little more latitude.

A plaintiff with a disability who alleges that her employer failed to accommodate her must show four things:

  1. she is a person with a disability under the meaning of the ADA,
  2. her employer knew about her disability,
  3. she can perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation, and
  4. the employer refused to make such accommodations.

At issue in this case is Step 4.

A reasonable accommodation enables an individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position or to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment. So the accommodation need not be perfect (or the precise accommodation that an employee requests), but it should be effective.

Here, the plaintiff conceded that she could perform the essential functions of her job despite the wobbly, old equipment she received from her employer that she received. Plus, she identified no “benefits or privileges of employment” that she could not enjoy because of the chair and footrest she was provided.

And while the plaintiff did attribute one leave of absence to an injury caused by the first ergonomic chair the defendant provided, she conceded that after she complained about that chair, another was provided for her, and does not attribute any of her subsequent leaves to that second chair.

So, in this case, the defendant prevailed.

Now, notice I went with the horseshoes metaphor and not hand grenades. Because when employers mess around with providing what would otherwise be relatively easy accommodations, things tend to … wait for it … blow up.

In this situation, unless the plaintiff demanded number 2 on this list, I’m ensuring she has whatever reasonably priced, brand new (or at least not worn) ergonomic chair she needs to do her job.

And a footrest? We’re talking about $100 max. That won’t create an undue hardship for any business. Heck, the underlying lawsuit and appeal probably cost at least 1000x to litigate.

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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