A recent case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act offers employers an opportunity to consider two frequent issues under this statute: What is a reasonable accommodation and what must an employer show to establish an “undue hardship” defense to providing such an accommodation.
The case, Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hosp. (1-21-16), resulted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland granting partial summary judgment for the former employee. The order found that Johns Hopkins Hospital violated the ADA, but left the issue of Searls’s damages under the ADA remained to be determined at trial.
The violation occurred after Johns Hopkins failed to provide a deaf nurse with the assistance of a full-time American Sign Language interpreter and rescinded the nurse’s job offer. The hospital had argued that it was too expensive to provide the interpreter.
What is a Reasonable Accommodation?
It is the employee’s burden to show that an accommodation is reasonable. And the reasonableness of an accommodation depends on whether it “enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job in question.” The essential job functions under the ADA are those that the individual who holds the job must perform, with or without reasonable accommodation, to be considered qualified for the position.
The essential job functions applicable to the lawsuit were (1) communicating with patients, family members, and other hospital personnel, and (2) monitoring and responding to alarms. The parties agreed that Searls could not have performed these essential functions without an accommodation.
Here, the court found that providing Searls with a full-time interpreter wouldn’t have eliminated any of the essential duties of the position; She still would have had to rely on her “nursing judgment” and not the interpreter’s in responding to patient needs and other information conveyed to her.
An accommodation is reasonable, but is it an undue hardship?
An employer is not liable if it “can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of [its] business.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Turning to this issue, Johns Hopkins argued that the projected $120,000 annual cost of an interpreter was prohibitive. In support of this argument, the hospital claimed it would have to fire two nurses to cover the cost.
The court rejected this argument because the hospital focused solely on the budget of the unit and the hiring department. It did not, however, concentrate on the hospital’s overall $1.7 billion budget. Further, the court found that accepting the hospital’s argument at face-value meant that it seemingly had no money allocated for providing workers with reasonable accommodations, as required by federal disability bias law.
There are three important points that companies should carefully consider when assessing a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA:
- First, this case reinforces that an “undue hardship” defense, will be available to employers only upon a showing of significant difficulty or expense in providing a disabled worker an accommodation.
- Second, in making the assessment, the “financial realities of the particular employer” will be taken into account.
- Third, “undue hardship” generally means “unduly expensive” by considering an employer’s overall operational budget and financial standing — not just the finances of a single department or unit employing the individual.
For more information about complying with the ADA, as well as responding to accommodation request under the ADA, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn. Since 2001, he has worked with both employers and employees in addressing ADA issues and, if necessary, litigating those issues.