Reasonable accommodations for disabled employees need to be reasonable, not perfect


I won’t bury the lede, which I’ll quote from the Fourth Circuit decision I read last night.

The [Americans with Disabilities Act] requires reasonableness, not perfection. Reasonableness does not demand that an accommodation have an airtight solution to every contingency conceivable. Its dictates are tethered to the practical realities of each case, not boundless hypotheticals.

In this case, a home health care aide with chronic arthritis in her knees refused to perform field assignments. She rejected a proposed accommodation from her employer that would have permitted her to preview and self-select which home-care assignments to accept. (More on this in a bit.)

She argued that the employer’s proposal “would have been inadequate because of potential emergency or otherwise unexpected situations that might have arisen, which, given her physical limitations, she might not have been able to adequately address.”

Her support came from a note in which her doctor stated that he didn’t “think” the screening and self-selection option was “reasonable” because a patient’s needs “can never be truly determined until she is at the home doing a proper nursing assessment.” Thus, by not accepting her doctor’s opinion, her employer’s accommodation was unreasonable.

She’s wrong. Remember, I didn’t bury the lede about how accommodations only need to be reasonable and not perfect.

To put this into greater perspective, the employer had demand for its services and a depleted supply of field nurses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, while it was all hands on deck, it nonetheless allowed the plaintiff to screen field assignments to select those patients whose anticipated needs were compatible with her physical limitations, which is inherently reasonable.

But what if — and this is a BIG “IF” — visiting patients is not an essential function of a home health care aide’s job. Does an employer have to remove nonessential functions of the job from an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation? (That’s what the employee argued.)

“Put simply,” said the Fourth Circuit, “that is not the law.”

An employer may need to restructure a job by removing nonessential job functions to accommodate an individual with a disability. But the ADA has never required it. Instead, “what counts as a reasonable accommodation . . . is sensitive to the particular circumstances of the case.”

If another reasonable accommodation exists — the list is not exhaustive — then the employer may implement it.

Frankly, the employee did herself a disservice by not at least trying the employer’s proposed accommodation. If it worked, great! If not, she would have had a stronger basis to seek an alternative accommodation and a better failure-to-accommodate claim.

But she didn’t. Case dismissed.

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