Court Rules ADA Requires Reasonable Accommodations but Essential Duties Must be Performable

On Monday, in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Judge Lynn Adelman granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of a children’s physician group, Children’s Hospital and Health System (CHHS), after the defendant was sued by a former employer alleging CHHS violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing the plaintiff with reasonable accommodations for her mental health ailments. 

CHHS is based in Wisconsin and previously employed the plaintiff as a half-time medical assistant. In her second month of employment with the defendant, CHHS began noticing the plaintiff frequently missed shifts or arrived late. In response to the attendance inquiry of the defendant, the plaintiff requested schedule modifications in the form of excused absences/late entrances, as the prior employee asserted that she maintained severe anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression with the treating medication often resulting in the plaintiff oversleeping or experiencing impromptu lapses in cognitive ability. 

CHHS initially granted the plaintiff the requested modifications for up to eight shifts per month without employment consequences. However, after nine months with this accommodation, the defendant discontinued the policy as the plaintiff only worked up to thirteen shifts each month, of which she now missed 75%. CHHS subsequently created a new accommodation that allowed the plaintiff 24 hours of additional leave each month. Both policies required one hour of notice to CHHS prior to the intended schedule modification. The defendant averred that despite the additional leave, the plaintiff continued to miss more days than the leave covered while never providing the required hour of notice. 

As a result of the plaintiff’s absences and lack of notice out of compliance with the latter leave policy, the defendant mandated that the plaintiff either forcibly comply with the disability leave policy or receive approval for the hours of leave in excess of the approved 24 hours via certification under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The defendant proffered that the plaintiff never even filled out the FMLA forms and therefore was terminated several months later. 

Following termination, the plaintiff filed suit against CHHS, arguing that the 24-hour leave policy was not a reasonable accommodation relative to her mental disabilities, with the better policy being job reassignment to a receptionist role or a disability schedule modification policy sans a monthly cap on hours. The defendant disagreed, summarily averring that the ADA required reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled employees can perform essential functions of the job, but stops short of requiring CHHS to employ the plaintiff when she was unable to perform an essential function of her job, arriving to work on time, if at all. 

The court agreed with the defendant and granted the requested motion for summary judgment against the plaintiff. In granting said motion, the court reasoned that “(i)n this case, as discussed, the essential functions of the plaintiff’s position included regular attendance and punctuality. The frequent, sporadic, and unpredictable leave that the plaintiff sought as an accommodation would not have enabled her to perform these essential functions. Instead, such leave would have excused her from performing them. But the ADA does not require an employer to excuse a disabled person’s inability to perform a job’s essential tasks.” The district court further noted that while the plaintiff may have been able to perform the essential tasks of the new receptionist role, this was only a reasonable accommodation under the ADA if CHHS actively maintained an open receptionist position, which the defendant did not retain at the time of the plaintiff’s need.

The plaintiff is represented by Adam Kent Legal. The defendant is represented by Quarles & Brady