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Disabled Employee’s Part-time Request is an Unreasonable Request for Accommodation


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Helou

By Gina Helou

The service representative worked full-time for the insurance company, which made her eligible for group short and long term disability benefits (STD and LTD benefits) in the event of an injury affecting her work.  The service representative suffered a non-work-related back injury in September resulting in sciatica, which prevented her from working for several months.  When she was able to return to work, she had restrictions from her doctor, which included only working part-time, or four hours per workday.  The initial injury triggered her STD benefits and the prolonged effects on her inability to work full-time triggered her LTD benefits.

By the following January, the service representative’s doctor released her to return to work full-time with no restrictions.  The insurance company then informed the service representative her LTD benefits would stop soon after her medical release date.  The service representative, however, claimed she still could not work full-time or complete all of her tasks at work.  The insurance company terminated her in early February, stating her position would remain open through March if she felt she was able to return to work full-time.  However, her part-time work was inadequate as she was unable to complete her duties in four-hour days, and this required other employees to work overtime to complete her daily task work.  The service representative did not request to return to her position full-time.  Instead, she unsuccessfully appealed the decision to end her LTD benefits, and then brought suit against the insurance company claiming discrimination and retaliation because she was a qualified individual with a disability, and therefore protected under the ADA.

The court stated a qualified individual with a disability is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions” of the employment position at issue.  Essential functions are those that, if removed, would “fundamentally alter” the position.  To succeed on her discrimination claim, the service representative had to show she could perform her duties and essential functions with a reasonable accommodation.  The insurance company, however, provided proof working full-time was an essential function of her position.  The insurance company also provided uncontroverted evidence it had never before hired a part-time employee for this position.  Additionally, the employee testified she was incapable of performing her daily duties when working part-time.  This led the court to find her desire to work part-time was an unreasonable accommodation request because it was evident the part-time position did not permit her to complete the essential functions of her position.  Based on these facts, the discrimination claim was dismissed.  Her retaliation claim likewise failed because she could not provide any proof she engaged in a protected activity and was subsequently fired for it.

The court’s analysis in this case provides employers with a good guide on how to handle disabled employees, especially those who are medically released to return to work full-time without restrictions but still request part-time accommodations.  These situations will be very fact sensitive, but it would appear based on this case an employer can make a persuasive argument against discrimination and retaliation claims under the ADA against an employee with similar circumstances.


 

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