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Employer Obligations: Reasonable Accommodation for Disabilities

Many business owners, particularly start-ups, remain unaware of the complex legal issues involved in employer-employee relationships. It is critical to have guidance on these matters, to understand your risks, rights, and obligation as an employer. Consider employer duties to accommodate employees with disabilities.

For example, a case recently passed through the federal district court system regarding an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee with a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that an employer must make reasonable accommodations for an employee with a disability, if such accommodations are possible and do not cause undue hardship. Common accommodations include providing wheelchair accessible offices or meeting spaces, modifying work equipment or schedules, and adapting training procedures or specific job duties. Reasonable accommodation must be made to allow employees to complete the interview process, training programs, and regular job duties.

Gooden v. Consumers Energy Co.
In this recent case, it is undisputed that the plaintiff, Anthony Gooden, was qualified to perform his job, had diabetes, and had requested accommodations due to his diabetes. Gooden worked for a gas company as a service technician who made house calls for leaks, meter readings, and other repairs. The vehicle provided to him for the job had no air conditioning.

Gooden presented a letter from his doctor recommending that, due to his diabetes and related complications, he should:

1. Avoid exposure to extreme heat.
2. Work close to home so he had constant access to his insulin.
3. Have an air-conditioned vehicle to keep his insulin cold because he took it every time he ate.

His employer, however, rejected these requests. Instead, his employer responded that:

1. He should make stops to cool off in air-conditioned restaurants and use a cooler to keep his insulin cold.
2. It was unreasonable for him to work close to home as customers were located around the city and it was impossible to predict where house calls would be necessary from day to day.
3. Hundreds of other employees had comparable medical conditions and performed job duties without following doctor’s orders.

The court agreed with the employer on the issue of working close to home, because the employee could technically test his blood sugar and administer insulin in a suitable company vehicle. However, the court found for the employee on the other issues. The court did not think that the company’s suggestion for the employee to cool off in restaurants was an adequate accommodation. First, there may not be an appropriate restaurant nearby when the employee needed to cool off, and traffic may prohibit him from reaching such a restaurant in a timely manner. Additionally, the company did not provide or offer to provide a proper medical cooler, but instead instructed the Gooden to find his own. The court did not believe that this constituted reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

If you have questions about any business law issues, including employment agreements and legal obligations, contact our Sacramento business lawyers today.