This week the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals provided some help to employers seeking to balance the need to accommodate disabled employees with the need to enforce regular attendance policies. In Samper v. Providence St Vincent Medical Ctr, the Ninth Circuit held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) did not require an Oregon hospital to exempt a neo-natal intensive care unit (“NICU”) nurse, whose fibromyalgia caused frequent absences, from its attendance policy. The case helps illustrate both when employers should be flexible in accommodating disabilities that could affect attendance, and also when they may be entitled to require stricter adherence to attendance policies.
The Facts Of Samper
The defendant in Samper, St. Vincent Hospital in Portland, Oregon, had little trouble demonstrating that strict adherence to its attendance policy was essential for NICU nurses, who care for a very vulnerable patients, need to be in the NICU to do their jobs, and must be able to respond quickly in emergency situations. The NICU nurse job description specifically identified attendance as an essential job requirement. Further, NICU nurses have specialized training making it more difficult to find replacements during absences. And despite the need for good attendance, the hospital policy nevertheless “generous[ly]” allowed nurses up to five unexcused absences per year.
The plaintiff, Ms. Samper, worked as a part-time NICU nurse since about 2000. From early on, she was disciplined or received multiple poor performance reviews in part because of unexcused absences in excess of the policy's 5-day per year limit. In 2005, she began suffering from fibromyalgia, which caused more absences. St. Vincent initially was able to accommodate her disability; first, it allowed her to call in on bad days and move her shift to another day. Later, it adjusted her schedule so she would not work on consecutive days. The hospital also provided Samper numerous extended leaves of absence, including for personal reasons unrelated to her disability. Ultimately, however, in 2008 St. Vincent terminated Ms. Samper’s employment for, among other reasons, her continued unexcused absences in excess of the policy. Ms. Samper sued, claiming in part that the hospital failed to reasonably accommodate her disability by not exempting her altogether from the 5-day limit under the attendance policy.
The Ninth Circuit found that her Ms. Samper’s request to be exempted from the attendance policy was not a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law. In reaching its conclusion, the Court first noted that the hospital’s written job description stated in several places that attendance and punctuality were essential functions. The Court also surveyed a number of other cases where courts found attendance to be an essential function, such as where employees must work in a team with other employees, where they regularly must interact with customers or clients (such as teachers and airline ticket agents), or are required to be on-site to work with special equipment (such as in a manufacturing environment). Ultimately, the Court found that attendance for NICU nurses was even more essential than in any of those other situations, considering the importance of their “specialized, life-saving work” and the difficulty of finding replacements due to the specialized training NICU nurses receive.
When Is Attendance An Essential Function Under the ADA?
The reasoning in Samper probably provides a mixed bag for other employers trying to balance attendance and accommodation needs. On the one hand, the case provides a ringing endorsement for the general principle that attendance can be an essential function of most jobs, absent evidence it is not, in fact, necessary. Indeed, the Court stated as a general “rule” and matter of “common sense” that: “Except in the unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties at home, an employee who does not come to work cannot perform any of his job functions, essential or otherwise.” (emphasis added)
On the other hand, the detailed discussion of the facts and overall subtext of the case suggest that the court’s holding may not be as broad as employers might hope. For example, the fact that NICU nurses provide care to vulnerable infants fighting for their lives probably helped tip things in the hospital’s favor; few other jobs will be able to demonstrate such urgency. In addition, for positions that don’t require as much specialized training as NICU nurses, attendance may be less essential if the employer can more easily find qualified replacements on short notice when a disabled employee is absent.
Perhaps most importantly, the hospital demonstrated flexibility in applying its attendance policy and had a demonstrated track record in accommodating Ms. Samper in the past. It did not enforce its attendance policy too strictly; instead, it allowed up to five unexcused absences per year. In addition, the hospital made “Herculean” attempts to accommodate Ms. Samper over a nearly eight-year period, including allowing absences in excess of the policy, providing numerous leaves of absence, and adjusting her schedule several times. The Court only found that her final request—to be exempted from the attendance policies altogether—was unreasonable. While those efforts are technically distinct from whether attendance is an essential function of a job, the Court obviously believed the hospital had already bent over backwards repeatedly to try to accommodate Ms. Samper. Had the hospital terminated her employment for a first time attendance violation or without the accommodation history, the case could have come out differently. In that sense, Samper could serve as a reminder that employers often cannot do enough to engage in the interactive process and attempt accommodation where reasonable.