Wednesday, May 21, 2008
In Garg v. Potter, No. 07-2377 (7th Cir. April 4, 2008), a U.S. Court of Appeals held that when an employee alleges that an adverse action was taken in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, but fails to challenge whether the employer provided reasonable accommodation, then the adverse action will not be overturned. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Postal Service.
Plaintiff was employed as a mail processor with the U.S. Postal Service at a major plant where large mail processing machines emitted microscopic fibers into the air. After working at this plant for several months, the employee began to experience allergic reactions and respiratory problems at work. The employee requested a reassignment to another shift. A subsequent physical examination found that the employee’s condition did not justify a change in shift, yet the employee’s supervisor nonetheless granted the request. The employee was not only reassigned to another shift, but also was assigned to an area for coding mail, which theoretically contained less allergens in the air.
This shift change lasted for seven months before the employee was returned to her former shift, but with a reduced number of hours. Then, the employee requested medical leave, but without providing documentation. Later, the agency instructed the employee, by letter, not to report to work until the cause of her condition was determined. The employee did not respond to this letter or any subsequent letters from the agency. The employee never asked the agency for any other accommodation. Despite the reasonable accommodations supplied, the employee repeatedly missed work without permission and thus failed to perform the essential functions of her job. Eventually, the agency removed the employee for absence without leave (AWOL).
When alleging a termination is the product of unlawful disparate treatment based on disability, the employee must first meet the burden of establishing a prima facie case by proving that (1) she is a qualified individual with a disability, (2) who is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation, and (3) has suffered an adverse employment decision because of the disability. The Garg court found that the employee failed to establish a prima facie case of discriminatorily-motivated termination under the Rehabilitation Act because she did not satisfy prong two of the elements. On appeal, the employee conceded that the agency had provided reasonable accommodations, but did not argue that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation. The facts showed that even with reasonable accommodations, the employee was not able to perform her job because she was often absent from work.
Garg is a necessary reminder of the Rehabilitation Act’s limitations with respect to employees with medical conditions. There are no automatic entitlements or protections that flow from an employee simply being disabled or stating that she has a disability. The employee must be qualified for the job and be able to perform the job’s essential functions. Employees with disabilities are not held to a lowered work performance standard because of their disability. A disabled worker who cannot do the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, has no claim of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, even if the employee’s inability to perform the job is due entirely to the disability. For such disabled employees, disability retirement may be indicated. For the sake of the employee and the employer, it is important to determine when a disabled employee is unable to perform the essential functions of a position, and when a reasonable accommodation is not adequately meeting the employee’s needs.