Last month, a federal appeals court sent a case that had been dismissed in the employer’s favor back to court for a jury trial. In Colwell v. Rite Aid Corp., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment on an ADA failure to accommodate claim. Ms. Colwell, a cashier at the drug store, typically worked an evening shift. Several months into her employment, she was diagnosed with a retinal condition that eventually left her blind in one eye. Therefore, she requested her shift be changed to daytime hours, as she could no longer safely drive at night. Her supervisor denied this request, claiming to do so would be unfair to other employees with more seniority. Ms. Colwell eventually quit, stating in her resignation letter that she had been treated unfairly. She received no response. Thereafter, she sued for (among other things), a failure to accommodate under the ADA.
The district court granted Rite Aid summary judgment, holding that the duty to accommodate did not extend beyond the four corners of the workplace. Since Ms. Colwell could perform her actual job duties without an accommodation, it reasoned, there was no failure to accommodate. Not so, according to the Third Circuit. The duty to reasonably accommodate can extend to an employee’s commute as well.
Two things about this case strike me as important for employers. First, be very, very careful when it comes to responding to requests for accommodation. Make sure supervisors understand how to spot such requests, and to pass them up the chain-of-command so they may be adequately analyzed and reviewed. Second, when an employee states in a resignation letter that she has been treated unfairly, don’t ignore it! Get counsel involved early. Doing so may avoid the cost and headache of a full-blown lawsuit later on.