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Following Doctor’s Orders Helps Employer Win ADA Case

If you legitimately cannot make an accommodation that meets the employee’s limitations, then the employee is not “qualified” under the ADA, and therefore unprotected by that law.

March 5, 2014

Cynthia Horn worked for Knight Facilities Management as a janitor. Sometime in 2010, she developed a sensitivity to cleaning chemicals. Her doctor initially limited her to a maximum of two hours of chemical exposure per eight hour work day. When that limitation failed to abate Horn’s symptoms, her doctor modified the restrictions to “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”

As a result, Knight Facilities fired Horn. It concluded that there was no work available to accommodate her restrictions, because the chemicals were airborne and merely working in the building resulted in exposure. Management spoke to Horn’s union rep, on Horn’s behalf, to try to find a solution before firing her, but none could be found. Notably, Knight Facilities refused to allow Horn to use a respirator, concluding that its use did not meet Horn’s restriction and, even if it did, it would cause an undue hardship because Knight Facilities would have to buy respirators for all of the other janitors.

In Horn v. Knight Facilities Management-GM, Inc. (2/25/14), the 6th Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Horn’s disability discrimination claim. In determining whether the employer could reasonable accommodate Horn’s disability, the court started, and ended, with the limitation imposed by Horn’s doctor—“no exposure to cleaning solutions.” Horn claimed that the company either should have: (1) eliminated restrooms on her cleaning route, or (2) provided her a respirator. The court disagreed:

We find that neither proposed accommodation is objectively reasonable because they both fail to comply with the physician-mandated restriction of “no exposure to cleaning solutions.” Eliminating the bathrooms on Horn’s route or assigning her to a new route without bathrooms are not reasonable accommodations because it is undisputed that Horn’s job still would have involved exposure to cleaning chemicals. Likewise, there is no evidence that working with a respirator would have complied….

Her restriction was “No exposure to Cleaning Solutions” and that would include using or touching cleaning solutions. And while Horn asserts that a respirator could have eliminated or significantly reduced her respiratory exposure, she provides no actual evidence to support this statement, much less evidence showing that a respirator would have prevented all exposure. Horn’s personal belief that she could handle cleaning solutions as long as she was wearing a respirator is irrelevant.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act  requires that you engage a disabled employee in the interactive process, as Horn illustrates, the employee’s specific medical limitations can dictate the boundaries of that interactive process and the scope of the accommodations you have to consider offering. If you legitimately cannot make an accommodation that meets the employee’s limitations, then the employee is not “qualified” under the ADA, and therefore unprotected by that law.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.  For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. Follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.