Friday, March 9, 2012

When 40 hours A Week Is Enough

A recent case out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals provides a useful analysis for assessing disability claims and what an employer has to do to accommodate them.

The case involves an employee who suffered a string of health problems, culminating in an extended absence from work. When the employee returned, his doctor precluded him from working more than eight hours a day, and 40 hours per week. Because the employer was using a rotating 12 hour shift system, it determined that it could not reemploy the employee, but also maintained that because he was able to work a normal week, the limitation on overtime did not qualify him as "disabled" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Thus, no accommodation was required.  Ultimately, the employee's physician certified him to work up to 10 hours a day, four days a week.

Eventually, the company (working with the employee's union) fashioned a position that was described in the opinion as being an eight hour a day job, plus overtime. But the employee sued under the ADA, claiming disability discrimination for the period during which the company refused to employ him.  Note to employers--just because you go out of your way and bend over backwards to help one of your workers doesn't mean he still won't be an ungrateful wretch and sue you anyway.

Fortunately, justice prevailed.  In affirming the dismissal of the employee's case, the Fourth Circuit initially determined that it would consider the act of working to be a major life activity for purposes of its analysis. That assumption does an important thing-it makes this opinion applicable to the 2008 amendments to the ADA, which categorically state that working is a major life activity. The court then decided that an inability to work overtime is not a substantial limitation on an individual's ability to work, and therefore does not qualify as a disability. Note that this is true even though the employee's inability to work overtime absolutely precluded him from working the specific job that he wanted with his employer.

This decision, which reinforces the holdings in a number of other federal circuit courts, is noteworthy because it helps shape the analysis employers have to use when determining whether there is a need to accommodate a claimed disability, and how far they have to go to do so. It represents a straight forward, common sense application of the statute.

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