Employers continue to move into increasingly unknown territory when it comes to navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and similar laws with mandated local and federal requirements.
In a spotlight on COVID-19-related workplace litigation, Barnes & Thornburg LLP shared the case of Grimmitt v. DeJoy. The plaintiff, a U.S. postal worker who primarily worked as a mail carrier, filed a three-count complaint against the U.S. Postal Service alleging discrimination, failure to accommodate and retaliation. All three complaints were under the Rehabilitation Act.
Barnes & Thornburg LLP shared the case as an illustration for private employers covered by ADA and similar state and local laws that courts and agencies analyze these laws using the same principles, according to the article.
The plaintiff alleged he asked for exemption from the COVID-19 mandatory mask requirement because the mask triggered panic attacks that rendered him unable to work. At the request of the local postmaster, the plaintiff provided a note from his healthcare provider stating the mask would cause medical harm to the plaintiff.
After three days of work without a mask, the plaintiff alleged the postmaster charged him absent without leave for any days he worked without a mask. Other allegations include the U.S. Postal Service moved the plaintiff to the dock to work and he was prohibited from going inside to use the water fountain or water facilities. The alleged acts occurred May through July 2020.
Lessons to Consider
- If an employee with a disability requests accommodation because of a medical condition that contraindicates compliance with a COVID-19 mandate, the employer risks violating the ADA if the request isn’t granted.
- The employer must establish that exempting the employee from the requirement would pose a direct threat to the employee or others that can’t be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation or that it would otherwise be unreasonable under the ADA to grant the exemption, or it would result in an undue hardship
- The employer must determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that reduces or eliminates the direct threat without creating an undue hardship on the employer.
- ADA is the employer’s burden to prove.
As explained, each circumstance requires individual assessment based on the particular facts and circumstances. EEOC provides COVID-19 Guidance that the direct threat analysis should be based on a reasonable medical judgement. This will rely on the current medical knowledge of COVID-19 and could include information about the work environment, vaccination status of coworkers and peers, screening, mask wearing and space available for social distancing.
Reasonable accommodation should eliminate the workplace barrier in a way that enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job position.