What Went Wrong? Vomiting Employee Could Have Been Accommodated with Altered Job

                               

Lakeland, FL (WorkersCompensation.com)–An employer need not eliminate a job’s essential function to accommodate a worker with a disability. But it may need to restructure the job. The customer service representative for a packing and manufacturing company in Brown v. Advanced Concept Solutions, No. 21-11963 (11th Cir. 10/27/22) sought a reasonable accommodation for a medical condition that caused her to frequently vomit.

The condition, called hyperemesis gravidarum, caused excessive saliva build-up. The saliva caused the worker to throw up, including at work. But the employee found she could avoid the problem by spitting regularly and not swallowing the saliva.

So, when she returned to work from medical leave, she carried a cup around the office and regularly spit into it. Not everyone liked that—at least, they didn’t like when it happened in the production area, where the customer service representative spent about 20 percent of her time. A manager told her she could not use the spit cup there.

The worker sued the company for refusing to reasonably accommodate her, such as by eliminating her production area work. The company argued that working in the production area was an essential function of the job.

The court explained that an employer violates the ADA if it fails to make a reasonable accommodation for an otherwise qualified employee with a disability. An otherwise "qualified” individual is someone able to perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation. The court explained that a reasonable accommodation may include job restructuring.

So, What Went Wrong?

The court pointed out the company admitted that the spit cup would not interfere with the employee’s duties in the administrative area, where she spent the other 80 percent of her workday.

Further, a reasonable jury could have found that being in the production area was not an essential function of the representative’s job, the court stated, given that it involved no more than 20 percent of her time.

“That testimony is consistent with ACI's job description for the position, which does not list being in the production area among the job's ‘Essential Duties and Responsibilities,’" the court wrote. The court also pointed to evidence that the customer service team had a "buddy system" that involved sharing production-area duties, and that the worker could still do the job's essential functions from her desk in the administrative area.

Since it was not essential for the employee to be in the production area, the court held, the jury reasonably could have found that a reasonable accommodation included restructuring her job to exclude those duties.

The court acknowledged that a separate section of the job description regarding "Physical Demands" indicated that "walking to and from the production area is required." But that statement was not determinative.

“That the job as originally conceived included a function—here, time in the production area—does not alone make the function essential,” the court wrote. Otherwise, the option of job restructuring would be meaningless.

The court affirmed the District Court’s ruling on the worker’s failure to accommodate claim.

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