U of Minnesota tried to make reasonable accommodations before firing customer service worker, appeals court rules

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Dive Brief:

  • The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s grant of summary judgment for the University of Minnesota in the case of a customer service employee who alleged the institution engaged in disability discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation (Ehlers v. Univ. of Minnesota, No. 21-1606 (8th Cir. May 19, 2022)).
  • In 2014, the employee was diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome, which affected her ability to speak. In 2016, she requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was granted, and a set of accommodations. The university approved some of the accommodations but denied others, including a request for reassignment, due to a lack of jobs at her existing work location that could accommodate her.
  • In 2017, the employee requested additional time off and more accommodations before again inquiring about reassignment. While doing so, she asked for and received full-time medical leave for three weeks and reduced hours for an additional five weeks. However, the university denied the employee’s request to extend the leave and fired her, stating that she could not work a full schedule, which was an essential function of her job. She sued the university, but a district court granted summary judgment to the university. The 8th Circuit affirmed, holding that “no reasonable jury could find that the University did not make good-faith efforts to make reasonable accommodations.”

Dive Insight:

The 8th Circuit’s analysis focused heavily on whether the university made a good-faith effort to accommodate the employee’s request for reassignment. The court held that the employee failed to submit the job posting, job title or evidence of the duties or requirements of any alternative position for which she would be qualified and the essential functions of which she could perform with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Additionally, the employee’s “extensive work restrictions and new diagnosis,” meant that she “needed to do more than provide job numbers, testimony that the identified jobs were clerical or administrative jobs, and her unsupported testimony that she qualified for them,” the 8th Circuit said.

The court also found that the university offered to help the employee find a new job. “Once the University realized [the employee] could not be accommodated in her current position, an employee from the job center reached out to [her] to schedule a meeting about vacant positions,” it continued. “But [the employee] [canceled] it, and the rescheduled meeting could not take place because [the employee] went on full-time medical leave.”

Ultimately, the 8th Circuit found it likely that finding a position that met the employee’s work restrictions “would have been difficult and time consuming.”

Reassignment has proven to be a contentious topic, with federal appeals courts split as to whether a reassignment must be noncompetitive under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last year, the 4th Circuit issued a decision in which it said reassignment was “last among equals” as an accommodation.

Furthermore, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has called reassignment a “last resort” that is only required if there are no effective accommodations that would enable an employee to perform the essential functions of the current position and all other accommodations would pose an undue hardship to the employer.

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