Why the Rehabilitation Act encourages active accommodation
The Rehabilitation Act prevents federal government agencies and contractors from discriminating against disabled individuals. When an Alabama equipment operator claimed constructive discharge and denial of reasonable accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act following an on-the-job injury, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the matter. At issue was whether the employer had provided a reasonable accommodation for the disabled employee.
The employee in Boyle v. Pell City worked as a heavy equipment operator for a municipality’s Street Department. A few months into his employment, he suffered an on-the-job injury that caused him to develop spinal stenosis, chronic nerve pain and other related conditions. After the injury, he could no longer perform the duties of a heavy equipment operator. The Street Department’s superintendent initially accommodated the employee by allowing him to do office work.
A few years later, the employee was allowed to perform the duties of a foreman, while the actual foreman voluntarily worked as a mechanic. Although he was working as a foreman, the employee received the wage rate of a heavy equipment operator. This was approximately $8 less per hour than the foreman’s rate. This arrangement went on for a period of approximately seven years. Then, the superintendent retired and was replaced. The employee heard a rumor that the new superintendent intended to fire him. The employee decided to apply for disability retirement. His application was denied.
Soon after the new superintendent assumed his position, he removed the employee from the foreman job and assigned him to work inventory. The employee told the new superintendent that the physical activities involved in conducting inventory made the job hard for him, but the superintendent ignored his complaints. The employee asked to be returned to performing foreman’s duties. The superintendent denied his request, explaining that the actual foreman was being paid foreman’s wages and should therefore perform those duties.
The employee filed a second application for disability retirement, and this time his application was approved. He then filed a complaint to assert violations of the Rehabilitation Act. Although the trial court found for the employer, the employee appealed and the case was taken up by the Eleventh Circuit.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits entities receiving federal funds from discriminating against otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities. A disability, for purposes of the act, is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. An employer unlawfully discriminates against an otherwise qualified person with a disability when it fails to provide a reasonable accommodation for the disability. Unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
The employee in such circumstances bears the burden of identifying an accommodation. Than showing that the accommodation would allow him or her to perform the essential functions of the job in question. Employers aren’t required to hire an employee for a nonexistent job or create a light-duty position for a disabled employee.
In Boyle, the appeals court found that the employee had failed to meet his burden of identifying a reasonable accommodation that the employer could have made. There was no vacant position for the employee and the City wasn’t required to create one for him. The court found that the employee had filed for retirement before being reassigned by the new superintendent. Thus negating the constructive discharge claim.
If your entity is subject to the Rehabilitation Act, know that you’re under no obligation to create a new position for a disabled employee. However, to ignore or disregard a disabled employee’s complaints about a disability at work could be a costly mistake. Work with employees to make an accommodation whenever possible. Need more information? Contact the experts at Ciuni & Panichi at 216.831.7171.
You may also be interested in: