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Disability Discrimination: Did "Good Deeds" Come Back To Punish Employer?

January 20, 2015

Employers often feel as if they have no choice when it comes to accommodating the disability of an employee. A recent decision by the 11th Circuit—which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—however, reaffirms the notion that there are "outer bounds" of the duty of an employer to accommodate. Not all accommodations are reasonable accommodations.


Cynthia Rabb, a full-time 5th grade elementary school teacher in Orange County, suffered from aphasia (loss of ability to understand and express speech) and reduced physical stamina as a result of a stroke. Her physician released her to return to work part-time 20 hours per week instructing small groups (up to six children) in sessions limited to one hour. Rabb requested a part-time position in accordance with her medical restrictions, and the school board denied her request.

Predictably, Rabb sued the school board for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Florida Civil Rights Act (FLCRA). The trial court dismissed her claim, holding that she failed to prove her status as a "qualified individual" under federal and state law. Rabb then filed an appeal with the 11th Circuit, and the appeals court affirmed the dismissal of her claim.

Reasonableness is fact-specific, but there are limits

As a preliminary matter, the 11th Circuit recognized that disability discrimination includes a failure to reasonably accommodate the physical or mental limitations of an otherwise "qualified individual." A "qualified individual" is one who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position. If the employee can not perform the essential job functions even with an accommodation, then, by definition, she is not a "qualified individual" and can not establish a failure-to-accommodate claim.

The 11th Circuit also recognized that required accommodations may include job restructuring or the provision of part-time or modified work schedules. That said, an employer is not required to transform the employment position into an entirely different position by eliminating essential functions, nor is an employer required to create a part-time position where it previously had eliminated part-time positions. Also, whether an accommodation is reasonable is a fact-specific inquiry, so the provision of a part-time schedule may be reasonable under some, but not all, circumstances.

In this case, the parties agreed that she could no longer work as a full-time classroom teacher. So the only issue before the 11th Circuit was whether she presented evidence of a reasonable accommodation that would have enabled her to perform the essential functions of her position. According to the job description, her job required her to effectively communicate orally and in writing, manage a classroom, work 196 days each year (7.5 hours each day) in the classroom, prepare lesson plans, and conduct parent conferences.

In support of her case, Rabb pointed out that the school board previously created a part-time tutoring position as an accommodation for her medical condition. The 11th Circuit rejected her reliance on the school board provision of prior accommodations, noting that they were not permanent and in fact had been eliminated because of budgetary constraints. The court went so far as to hold that the provision of prior accommodations does not make an accommodation reasonable. Simply put, "an employer that bends over backwards to accommodate a disabled worker . . . must not be punished for its generosity by being deemed to have conceded the reasonableness of so far-reaching an accommodation."

The school board did offer to accommodate her medical condition by offering her a full-time teaching position with advanced students that would have presented fewer academic and disciplinary challenges. Alternatively, the school board offered her the option of having her name placed on a list for reassignment to another school with possible part-time positions. She rejected those options after her physician deemed them "ill-advised medically."

The 11th Circuit summed up its analysis by noting that Rabb, while rejecting options offered by the school board, identified only one possible accommodation—a part-time teaching position. That position was not available at her school, and "a part-time position that does not exist is not a “reasonable” accommodation because the ADA imposes no duty on the employer to create a part-time position to accommodate an employee with a disability."

Employer takeaway

Assessing an employee request for a medical accommodation can be a daunting task, especially when the request may conflict with business needs. At the end of the day, the analysis boils down to reasonableness. While reasonableness is a fact-specific inquiry, this case confirms that employer obligations are not limitless. There are times when an employer may say "no." But, of course, employers are advised to consult with counsel before making these types of decisions.

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