Disability discrimination occurs whenever a New York employer fails to make a “reasonable accommodation” requested by an employee with a documented disability. Among other things, it is “reasonable” to restructure or modify a job to account for the employee's disability. However, an employer is not legally required to eliminate an “essential function of a job.”
Written Job Description Not Enough to Save Employer From Lawsuit
How do you know which job functions are essential? In the context of a disability discrimination lawsuit, there are a number of factors that a judge will examine. One of them is the written job description provided by the employer. However, this alone is insufficient to show a disabled employee's request for accommodation is unreasonable.
Consider this ongoing case from Manhattan federal court. The defendant is a well-known retailer. The plaintiff was hired to work in the defendant's “bulk department.” This is the department that handles the shipping of merchandise. As such, employees are normally required to lift and move large objects, either manually or using special equipment.
The plaintiff required a number of accommodations due to her medical conditions. Accordingly, she was placed on “light duty.” Co-workers frequently had to assist her in performing certain job tasks. Managers for the defendant apparently exchanged emails in which they expressed concern for the cost of continuing to employ the plaintiff with her accommodations.
The defendant ultimately fired the plaintiff, ostensibly because she was accused of stealing a small bag of chips from a co-worker's lunch. The plaintiff sued for disability discrimination, arguing the alleged theft was simply an excuse to get rid of her because the defendant no longer wanted to accommodate her disability as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and corresponding state laws.
The defendant moved for summary judgment. The judge presiding over the case denied that motion. In an August 9 opinion the judge addressed, among other issues, the defendant's claim that it was no longer required to accommodate the plaintiff's disability because she could no longer perform certain essential job functions. To that point, the defendant cited the written job description for a bulk department associate, which includes the ability to “lift, push or pull boxes/merchandise weighing between 70 pounds to 100 pounds by hand.”
The judge said this description, standing by itself, does not prove the ability to lift a certain amount of weight is an “essential” job function. Indeed, the defendant's written policy actually said that associates “may” be required to perform such tasks. This suggested to the judge that such lifting “may not be essential to the position.”
In addition, even if the ability to lift was essential, the defendant still has to prove there was no way to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff in this area. But as noted above, the defendant already placed her on “light duty” and co-workers assisted her with “moving objects.” The judge said that at trial, a jury could find these were “reasonable accommodations,” defeating the defendant's arguments to the contrary.
Have You Been Mistreated at Work Due to Your Disability?
Disability discrimination is very fact-specific. No two cases are exactly the same because each individual plaintiff's disability and workplace situation is unique. That is why if you have lost your job because your employer failed to accommodate your disability, you need to work with an experienced New York employment law attorney who will aggressively represent your interests. Contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar in New York City and Long Island today if you need legal assistance with any kind of workplace discrimination.