In 1989, Ms. Peggy Gantner was employed by the United States Postal Service ("USPS") as an Automated Markup Clerk. In the course of her employment, Ms. Gantner suffered a back injury and a carpal tunnel injury to her wrist. In light of these injuries, the Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs ("The Office") agreed to make every reasonable effort to accommodate Ms. Gantner and place her in a position within her medical restrictions.
The Federal Employees Compensation Act ("Compensation Act") is a program administered by The Office that provides payment of workers' compensation benefits to civilian officers and employees of the U.S. government. Under the Compensation Act, The Office must determine if a limited-duty job is "suitable work" for a federal employee with a compensable job-related injury and is then required to provide the modified position as an accommodation. An employee who accepts a modified position is entitled to receive compensation benefits, while an employee who refuses to accept a modified position is not entitled to receive compensation benefits unless she can show just cause for the refusal.
The Office determined that Ms. Gantner qualified under the Compensation Act and notified USPS that it was required to accommodate Ms. Gantner according to her medical restrictions. In March 1996, the USPS created the Window Clerk Modified position ("modified position") for Ms. Gantner. She began work in this position in June 1996.
After a month and a half in the modified position, Ms. Gantner stopped coming to work. She claimed both a recurrence of her carpal tunnel injury and a failure on the part of the USPS to provide her with the modified furnishings that would have allowed her to fully perform the functions of the modified position. In September of 1996, The Office notified Ms. Gantner that she was not justified in leaving the modified position, and for purposes of the Compensation Act, The Office viewed her as having "abandoned suitable employment." In light of this, The Office terminated Ms. Gantner's workers compensation benefits.
Between July 1996 and January of 1999, Ms. Gantner negotiated with the USPS for her return to work. Ms. Gantner requested that she be permitted to return to the modified position but was told that the modified position no longer existed. Instead, the USPS offered Ms. Gantner her original job as an Automated Markup Clerk. Ms. Gantner refused this position as it did not reasonably accommodate her disabilities and, in May 2000, took disability retirement.
Ms. Gantner has since passed away and her estate filed a claim against the USPS on her behalf, claiming that by denying Ms. Gantner the opportunity to return to work at the modified position, the USPS failed to reasonably accommodate her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. Although Title I of the ADA does not apply to federal agencies (e.g., the USPS), the court continued to refer to Ms. Gantner's claim under both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. A claim under the Rehabilitation Act is the appropriate course of action for this claim against a federal agency. The employment discrimination analysis on the basis of disability is the same for these two Acts. For the purposes of this brief, we refer to the claim under the Rehabilitation Act.
The USPS accepted that it had an obligation to reasonably accommodate Ms. Gantner, but disagreed that the modified position was a reasonable accommodation. It argued that the modified position was not a "vacant, funded position," as required under the Rehabilitation Act in order to be considered a reasonable accommodation. Rather, the USPS stated that it created the modified position as a new job for Ms. Gantner in accordance with its obligations under the Compensation Act.
The Rehabilitation Act requires that employers reasonably modify the job duties of employees with disabilities, and that modifications may include job reassignment if alternative positions are reasonably available. The Court noted that the Rehabilitation Act does not require an employer to create a position not already in existence.
Ms. Gantner therefore was unable to show that the modified position was a currently available and funded position at the USPS at the time she requested it as a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act. Thus, USPS did not violate the Rehabilitation Act when it refused Ms. Gantner's request for the modified position.
The USPS offered Ms. Gantner the Window Clerk Modified position in light of her work related injuries. The record indicates that this position was a modification of her original Automated Window Clerk position and that USPS did not experience any unreasonable hardship in creating this position for her. Yet, the court found the position was not "reasonably available" as a Rehabilitation Act accommodation because it did not technically exist at the time Ms. Gantner requested it.
Both the Rehabilitation Act and the Compensation Act can apply to federal employees with disabilities, and can require the employer to provide accommodations. Unlike the Rehabilitation Act, the Compensation Act can require the employer to create a new position or modified position for the employee as an accommodation. However, this case indicates that an accommodation provided under the Compensation Act does not qualify as a reasonable accommodation for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.