The Seventh Circuit recently sent an ADA case to trial, reversing a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer. In Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care, a hairdresser for a nursing home was no longer able to push residents in wheelchairs from their rooms to the beauty parlor. She had done so without incident for nearly 30 years, but after a surgery was no longer able. She asked for an accommodation, namely that other employees wheel the residents to the parlor, where she would do their hair. The home’s administrator told her “we just don’t allow people to work with restrictions.” He then stated it would place a hardship on the home for other employees to have to assume the wheelchair pushing duties. Interestingly, the plaintiff’s co-workers voluntarily did the pushing for her for some time, until she resigned. In her subsequent ADA suit, she claimed the home failed to accommodate her.
According to the employer, pushing residents in wheelchairs took up about 60% of the plaintiff’s time. Per the plaintiff, this duty amounted to only 9% of her duties. Based on this discrepancy, the Seventh Circuit held the case had to proceed to trial. There, each side can try to prove their position. If the wheelchair pushing duty really amounts to a small percentage of the plaintiff’s time, the employer will have a hard time establishing an “undue burden” would have resulted from reassigning this duty. The court also noted the discriminatory sound of the administrator’s comment about restrictions.
What are some takeaways from this case? Essential functions are best spelled out before there is an issue. If the employer had a job description that delineated the percentage of time spent transporting residents, it could have avoided the prospect of a trial. Also, employers can’t have a policy – in writing or otherwise – providing that they don’t accept restrictions. Some management level training would probably have avoided this problem.