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Following Orders from the Doctor Helps Employer Win ADA Case
March 5, 2014
Cynthia Horn worked for Knight Facilities Management as a janitor. Sometime in 2010, she developed a sensitivity to cleaning chemicals. Her doctor initially limited her to a maximum of two hours of chemical exposure per eight hour work day. When that limitation failed to abate her symptoms, her doctor modified the restrictions to “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”
As a result, Knight Facilities fired Horn. It concluded that there was no work available to accommodate her restrictions, because the chemicals were airborne and merely working in the building resulted in exposure. Management spoke to the union rep, on behalf of Horn, to try to find a solution before firing her, but none could be found. Notably, Knight Facilities refused to allow Horn to use a respirator, concluding that its use did not meet her restriction and, even if it did, it would cause an undue hardship because Knight Facilities would have to buy respirators for all of the other janitors.
In Horn v. Knight Facilities Management-GM, Inc. (2/25/14), complaint the 6th Circuit affirmed the dismissal by the district court of the disability discrimination claim. In determining whether the employer could reasonable accommodate the disability, the court started, and ended, with the limitation imposed by the doctor—“no exposure to cleaning solutions.” Horn claimed that the company either should have: (1) eliminated restrooms on her cleaning route, or (2) provided her a respirator. The court disagreed: We find that neither proposed accommodation is objectively reasonable because they both fail to comply with the physician-mandated restriction of “no exposure to cleaning solutions.” Eliminating the bathrooms on the route or assigning her to a new route without bathrooms are not reasonable accommodations because it is undisputed that the job still would have involved exposure to cleaning chemicals. Likewise, there is no evidence that working with a respirator would have complied….
Her restriction was “No exposure to Cleaning Solutions” and that would include using or touching cleaning solutions. And while Horn asserts that a respirator could have eliminated or significantly reduced her respiratory exposure, she provides no actual evidence to support this statement, much less evidence showing that a respirator would have prevented all exposure. Her personal belief that she could handle cleaning solutions as long as she was wearing a respirator is irrelevant.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that you engage a disabled employee in the interactive process, as Horn illustrates, the specific medical limitations of an employee can dictate the boundaries of that interactive process and the scope of the accommodations you have to consider offering. If you legitimately cannot make an accommodation that meets the limitations of an employee, then the employee is not “qualified” under the ADA, and therefore unprotected by that law.
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