Seyfarth Synopsis: The D.C. Circuit recently revived a single-leg amputee’s claim that his former employer failed to accommodate his disability by refusing his request for a classroom aide. In reversing the lower court’s decision in part, the two-member panel found triable issues of fact existed regarding whether forcing the plaintiff to work with pain, when that pain could have been alleviated by his requested accommodation, violated The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Case Background

In Hill v. Associates for Renewal in Education, Inc., No. 15-7064 (D.C. Cir. 2018), the plaintiff, who wore a leg prosthesis, worked as a teacher and program aide for Associates for Renewal in Education, Inc. (“ARE”). Throughout his employment, Hill worked in a three-story building with no elevator and was responsible for instructing participants in the classroom, on field trips, and during outside activities; overall classroom management; counseling participants on academic and behavioral challenges; and providing administrative and/or clerical support to administrative personnel.

A year and a half before his termination, Hill injured his amputated leg and damaged his prosthesis while walking across ARE’s playground, which resulted in him experiencing severe pain and bruising after standing for long periods of time. As an accommodation, he requested and was assigned a classroom aide and was permitted to hold his classes on the second floor of the building.

A couple of months later, ARE reassigned Hill to a classroom on the third floor. Unlike the other teachers in his program, Hill was not assigned a classroom aide, despite having the largest classroom size among his peers. According to Hill, he contested the reassignment and requested to be moved back to a lower floor and with a teacher aide, but to no avail. Around the same time, Hill began to have disciplinary issues at work and was subsequently terminated.

Hill subsequently filed a pro se complaint against ARE alleging, inter alia, claims for disability discrimination and hostile work environment based on the non-profit’s denial of his requests for a classroom aide and to be reassigned to a classroom on a lower floor. The D.C. District Court denied summary judgment on Hill’s claim for failure to accommodate based on ARE’s refusal to assign him to a lower floor, but granted summary judgment on his claims for hostile work environment and failure to accommodate his request to be assigned a classroom aide. Specifically, with respect to his request for a classroom aide, the district court concluded that Hill “had not adduced any evidence to show that an [a]ide would have been an effective means of addressing the limitations imposed by his amputated leg,” despite Hill’s insistence that the aide was necessary because his disability substantially limited his ability the perform the essential functions of his job “without pain and bruises,” which required walking long distances, standing for long periods of time, and climbing consecutive flights of stairs.

Hill appealed. The Circuit court affirmed in part and denied in part.

The D.C. Circuit Court’s Reasoning

The D.C. Circuit Court concluded that the district court was right to grant summary judgment on Hill’s hostile work environment claim (agreeing that even if ARE had denied Hill a classroom aide and failed to assign him to a lower floor, such behavior did not amount to the type of “extreme” conditions sufficient to constitute a hostile work environment), but wrong to say that Hill had not proffered sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that ARE violated the ADA when it refused his request for a classroom aide.

To prevail on a failure-to-accommodate claim brought under the ADA, a plaintiff is required to show that: 1) he suffered a qualifying disability, his employer knew about the disability, 3) he could perform the essential functions of his job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, and 4) his employer refused to make the accommodation. An accommodation is only reasonable under the ADA if it “relate[s] to the disability that creates the employment barrier and, in fact, “address[es] that barrier.”

The Court found that Hill—who alleged he experienced “a hazard of pain and bruising” while standing for long periods of time, pain that resulted from him having to supervise his class without assistance from a classroom aide— had satisfied his burden of sufficiently connecting his disability with his request for a classroom aide and the assistance the aide could provide him in performing the essential functions of his job. The Court, however, found unpersuasive ARE’s argument that Hill did not need the accommodation of a classroom aide because he could perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation, albeit with a lot of pain, and, instead, held that “[a] reasonable jury could conclude that forcing Hill to work with pain when that pain could be alleviated by his requested accommodation violates the ADA” and that “if ARE [had] provided Hill a classroom aide as it did for his colleagues, that aide could help Hill supervise students in the classroom and during outdoor activities, reducing his need for prolonged standing and mitigating the alleged ‘hazard of pain and bruising.’”

While the Court expressed no opinion about whether the classroom aide would have, in fact, constituted a reasonable accommodation for Hill’s disability—leaving that for the jury to decide—it reminded employers and employees, alike, that while “the ADA does not make employers responsible for alleviating any and all challenges presented by an employee’s disability… an employer may be required to accommodate an employee’s disability by ‘reallocating or redistributing nonessential, marginal job functions,’ or by providing an aide to enable the employee to perform an essential function without replacing the employee in performing that function.”

Takeaways for Employers

The ADA continues to be a significant area of liability for employers, as disability-related issues continue permeating today’s workplace. The D.C. Circuit’s decision stands as a reminder to employers to carefully assess the reasonableness of an employee’s request for an accommodation and to strongly consider such requests in the absence of undue hardship. Employers should take care to remember that the “reasonableness” of any request for an accommodation will necessarily depend on the specific circumstances which must be evaluated on a case by case basis. The mere fact that a disabled employee can perform the essential functions of his or her job, albeit with pain or discomfort, may not, by itself, be sufficient to deny that employee a reasonable accommodation.