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Courts Rule on Employers' ADA Accommodation Limits: Key Takeaways


Ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect, employers have been warned that virtually any condition can now fit the definition of a disability, but there are limits, as two recent court rulings illustrate.

In Connelly v. WellStar Health System Inc. (case), a former worker filed a discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation suit after the company fired her within a few weeks of returning from leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Failed a drug test

Since she reported to work under the influence of drugs and failed a drug test — a violation of company policy — the company fired her.

She argued that WellStar did not consult a doctor to determine if the unreported drugs were the cause of the impairment and did not accommodate her by allowing enough time for her to compose herself.

On four previous occasions, WellStar allowed the employee, who had a depressive disorder, to cool down or go home, she argued. However, the court rejected her argument.

The company neither failed to accommodate nor retaliated because the employee did not request an accommodation this time, said the court. It did not matter that the company had given her time to compose herself on other occasions.

An employer is not obligated to provide an accommodation unless the employee makes a direct request and "unless the need for an accommodation is obvious, i.e., an employee who uses a wheelchair," said labor attorney Melissa Legault in

In the past, courts have found that stress and unexcused absences are also not considered obvious signs of a disability.

Burden-shifting framework

When evaluating ADA claims of discrimination, "courts apply a multi-step, burden-shifting framework," said Legault. For example, in this case:

  1. The employee showed that she had a disability (depression) and that she suffered an adverse employment action (she was fired).
  2. WellStar explained that it terminated her because she reported to work with undisclosed drugs in her system (a violation of its drug policy).
  3. The employee argued that WellStar did not consult a physician to determine if the drugs caused the impairment, however, the court rejected this argument, explaining that the company established a "legitimate, non-discriminatory reason" for her termination.

Failed to show discrimination

In a second similar case (decided the day after WellStar), Fragada v. United Airlines Inc., an employee was terminated after he failed a drug test (again violating company policy).

Like the WellStar employee, he sued, alleging disability discrimination and disputing the test results.

However, the employee, who said he suffered from an attention disorder, failed to show enough proof for disability discrimination, said the court, because United Airlines:

  • did not discriminate (it had a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason" for firing the worker) and
  • did not fail to engage in the interactive process or accommodate employee (because "an employee cannot demand clairvoyance of his employer," said the court).

Both cases provide a good reminder of the limits and requirements under the ADA, said Legault.

Posted In: Reasonable Accommodation; Drugs/Alcohol, Abuse and Testing; Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA); Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Discrimination, Illegal

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