Employers recognize that they have a duty to reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but determining the point when that obligation is satisfied can be difficult. In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the need to accommodate, but ruled that in the case under review, no accommodation was required.
In Spears v. Creel (11th Cir. April 2015), an unpublished opinion, the Plaintiff who had cancer and underwent surgery, sought to return to work. The Sheriff’s office notified Spear that she could not return to her former position as a corrections supervisor in the medical care unit because medical care in the jail had been taken over by an outside provider. A corrections officer position was available. However, Spears’ physician’s fitness for duty certificate stated that she could not perform the essential functions of a corrections officer job related to the use of force and that she would need to take time off from work for treatment.
The Sheriff terminated Spears’ employment because she was unable to perform the essential functions of the available job regarding the use of force and “arriving on time” and “working the entire shift.”
The Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower Court’s award of summary judgment for the Sheriff on the basis that it was clear that Spears could not perform the essential job duties of the position nor had Spears identified any accommodation that would have allowed her to work a full shift or a consistent schedule. Because Spears had not suggested an accommodation, the Court ruled the “Sheriff’s duty to engage in the interactive process was not triggered.”
This case makes it clear that an employee is only entitled to a “reasonable” accommodation and that the employer is not required to eliminate the essential functions of a job in order to accommodate an employee. The case also points out that although an employer may be obligated to investigate potential accommodations that are obvious, as a general matter the employee must propose an accommodation in order to trigger the employer’s obligation to do so.