This month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether the ADA obligates an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability when it affects the employee’s ability to get to work. In Colwell v. Rite Aid Corp., 08- 4675, the Third Circuit held that changing an employee’s work schedule in order to alleviate disability-related difficulties in commuting is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates.

The Facts

In April 2005, Jeanette Colwell was hired as a cashier at a Rite Aid store. Although Colwell’s shifts varied, she regularly worked from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. In the summer of 2005, she was diagnosed with “retinal vein occlusion and glaucoma in her left eye,” and eventually became blind in that eye. Although Colwell was able to see out of her right eye and perform her duties at work, in mid-September 2005 she informed her supervisor, Susan Chapman, that her partial blindness made it dangerous and difficult for her to drive to work at night. Chapman denied Colwell’s request to be assigned only day shifts because it “wouldn’t be fair” to the other workers.

Soon thereafter, Colwell provided Chapman with a doctor’s note recommending that Colwell not drive to work at night. After receiving the note, Chapman again reiterated to Colwell that she would not exclusively assign her to day shifts. In response, Colwell stated that she could possibly have her grandson pick her up from work, but that she could not depend on others for transportation on a consistent basis. Chapman continued to schedule Colwell for a mixture of day and night shifts.

Eventually, Colwell resigned and told Chapman that she felt she was being treated unfairly and subjected to prejudice.

The District Court

Colwell filed a lawsuit in the federal district court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania asserting, in part, a claim against Rite Aid for failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”).

The district court granted Rite Aid’s motion for summary judgment and found that Rite Aid had no duty to accommodate Colwell’s request for a shift change because the accommodation request did not relate to the work environment or the manner and circumstances under which she performed her work. According to the trial judge, the ADA was designed to address problems within the workplace, not circumstances over which the employer would not have control, such as how an employee gets to work.

The Third Circuit

The principle issue on appeal was whether a shift change request can be considered a reasonable accommodation for an employee who is unable to drive at night due to partial blindness.

Rite Aid argued that it had no duty to consider changing Colwell’s shift because Colwell’s difficulties amounted to a commuting problem unrelated to the workplace and the ADA does not obligate the employer to address such difficulties. The Third Circuit rejected this argument and held, as a matter of law, that changing an employee’s schedule in order to alleviate disability-related difficulties in getting to work is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates.

The Court reasoned that the ADA does not strictly limit the scope of reasonable accommodations to address only problems relating to an employee’s work performance once an employee arrives at the workplace. For instance, the ADA expressly provides for modified work schedules and contemplates workplace accessibility.

In its analysis, the Court cited Lyon v. Legal Aid Society, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals case which recognized that the ADA contemplates accommodations for workplace accessibility. In Lyons, the plaintiff suffered a physical impairment that prevented her from walking long distances and sued her employer for refusing to provide her financial assistance to pay for a parking space close to work. The Second Circuit held that the employee stated a claim under the ADA and there was nothing inherently unreasonable in requiring an employer to provide a disabled employee with assistance with commuting to work. The Third Circuit agreed that an employer may be required to furnish an employee with assistance related to the ability to get to work; the Court, however, expressly declined to comment on the holding in Lyons that a reasonable accommodation could include paying for an employee’s parking space.

The Third Circuit, therefore, held that under certain circumstances an employer may be compelled under the ADA to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work, if reasonable. One such circumstance is when the requested accommodation is a change to a workplace condition entirely within the employer’s control that would allow the employee to get to work to perform his or her job – such as a shift change.

Conclusion

The Colwell decision makes clear that the ADA is not limited to addressing only the employee’s work environment once the employee arrives at work. Employers, therefore, should exercise caution when an employee requests a disability-related accommodation relating to workplace accessibility.