Employers in the four easternmost New England states should be aware of recent case law that may radically impact their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Federal courts in those states are subject to the guidance of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which recently issued a decision in an ADA case that represented a significant departure from the prior decisions of not just every other Circuit Court, but of the First Circuit itself.
In Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises, LLC, the First Circuit addressed a store manager’s claim that his employer denied him a reasonable accommodation. The manager’s doctor provided a return-to-work clearance which stated that, because of the manager’s mental health issues, he should not be scheduled for more than 9 hours per day, 5 days per week: a total of 45 scheduled hours. The store’s policy, however, was that managers would be scheduled for 50 hours per week, and needed to be flexible for up to an additional 50 hours per week.
In overturning the District Court of Maine, which instructed the jury that the manager must prove that he “needed” an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job, the First Circuit held that:
The District Court erred here when it instructed the jury that, for a disabled employee to make out a failure-to-accommodate claim, he must demonstrate that he needed an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job.
The First Circuit then ruled that:
An employee who can, with some difficulty, perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation remains eligible to request and receive a reasonable accommodation.
This holding – that a disabled employee who can perform the essential functions of a job can nonetheless request and receive special accommodation so long as the employee faces “some difficulty” in performing those functions – can be expected to invite a flood of litigation.
The unfortunate reality is that many employees with disabilities face “some difficulty” in performing essential job functions. The Court in O’Reilly did not provide any guidance on when “some difficulty” rises to the level that it must be accommodated. This lack of guidance contrasts with the otherwise-settled principle that the duty to accommodate is triggered when the accommodation is necessary for the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. It can be expected that Plaintiff’s lawyers will seize upon the ambiguity of this new “some difficulty” standard. If you have questions or would like further information, please contact PLDO Partner Joel K. Goloskie and Attorney Randelle L. Boots at 401-824-5100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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