Transfer as Reasonable Accommodation
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Sanchez v. Vilsack, Appeal No. 11-2118 (September 19, 2012), ruled that a federal employee could request a reasonable accommodation for disability in the form of a hardship transfer to a city where she would have “better access to ongoing medical treatment.”
Sanchez, an employee of the U.S. Forest Service at a rural post in New Mexico, became partially blinded from a severe injury at work. Although the agency provided some accommodative lighting and rest breaks, Sanchez suffered eye strain on the job. She also had great difficulty driving, shopping and traveling to her doctors; so she requested a temporary relocation to Albuquerque, where she would have access to specialist health care and had family and community support.
The agency allowed her to serve a 120-day detail in an Albuquerque office, but did not permanently reassign Sanchez there, and did not select her for two open positions for which she applied and was qualified. Accordingly, Sanchez had to return to her old post where her co-workers mocked and harassed her. Sanchez later found a new position in Albuquerque, but with a pay cut at a lower grade. She then filed a discrimination suit in U.S. District Court alleging that the Forest Service violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate her and by subjecting her to a hostile work environment. The District Court dismissed the case, finding her not “disabled” within the meaning of the Rehabilitation Act.
In defending against Sanchez’s appeal of the district court summary ruling, the agency lodged an alternative argument on appeal against Sanchez’s requested transfer accommodation. The agency argued that the Rehabilitation Act “does not require accommodations for the purpose of medical treatment or therapy,” that the request was unreasonable per se, and that the agency did not have to engage in any interactive process to consider the request.
The appeals court disagreed, holding that the disability laws must be read broadly to “contemplate accommodations that are wholly unrelated to the essential functions of a job,” and that a transfer accommodation, even if solely for medical care and not particularly related to performing the employee’s duties, was “not unreasonable per se.” The court therefore rejected the agency argument, and aligned its ruling with similar rulings from U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh and Ninth Circuits. The appeals court also reversed the finding that Sanchez was not disabled.
The appeals court pointedly noted, however, that it did not reach the question in this case whether the transfer request would have posed an “undue burden” on the agency. Under the Rehabilitation Act, an employer may avoid its obligation to accommodate the employee if it can show that the transfer would impose such a burden. The appeals court therefore remanded the case back to the district court for further consideration.