Court Says Employee Entitled to Accommodation But Not the One She Wants

  • Aug 9, 2018
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

A recent Federal Appeals Court decision reminds us that a disabled employee might be entitled to an accommodation but it does not have to be the accommodation that the employee has selected.

Andrea Sessoms took a bereavement leave from her job at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) when her mother died after a long illness. She alleged that when she returned to work, her supervisor, Maria Colavita, began criticizing her in front of other staff, raising her voice and rolling her eyes when talking to Sessoms, and demonstrating a lack of regard for Sessoms’ personal circumstances.

Accommodation Requested

Sessoms began experiencing memory loss and high blood pressure, which she though contributed to increasing errors at work. Sessoms claimed that after telling her supervisor about this, Colavita said she did not care about Sessoms’ medical issues. Sessoms reported this remark to her department director and a human resources employee, but she found their responses unsympathetic and unhelpful.

After Colavita directed her to sign a “coaching record” regarding unsatisfactory job performance, Sessoms became upset and went out on a medical leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In preparing for her return to work, Sessoms requested the following accommodations:

• A part-time schedule that would gradually allow her to build up to full time hours;
• A transfer to a lower stress department and office; and
• Assignment to a different supervisor.

Request Granted (Sort Of)

UPenn agreed to the part time schedule and offered other options as well, but they denied the request for a transfer and a different supervisor. Sessoms apparently balked at any return-to-work arrangement that required her to work for Colavita, leading UPenn to decide that their only option was to terminate her employment. Sessoms thereupon sued UPenn for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

After the lower court dismissed the case, Sessoms appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, who affirmed the dismissal. First, the appeals court explained that the employer had acted in good faith by offering various accommodations, including the part time schedule that Sessoms requested. They then noted that Sessoms rejected these offers, seeking instead a transfer to a different department and supervisor.

The court concluded that Sessoms did not meet her burden of showing “the existence of an equivalent-level, vacant position for which the employee could qualify.” Moreover, even if such a position existed, the court explained that “reasonable accommodation does not entitle an employee to a supervisor ideally suited to their needs.” Since the employer offered appropriate accommodations that would have allowed Sessoms to return to work, the court ruled that UPenn’s denial of the preferred accommodation did not violate the ADA.

Bottom Line

The ADA mandates that disabled employees be accommodated (absent an undue burden) but it does not say that employees get to select the accommodation they want.  Sometimes the employee’s desired accommodation will be too costly or administratively burdensome, or simply not as effective as other alternatives.  For example, an employee with a 20lb lifting restriction may ask to be relieved from lifting 40lb packages.  The employer can decide, however, that it is more workable to revise their packaging so that they do not exceed 20lbs, thereby meeting the restriction.

Of course, if the employee’s desired accommodation poses no real burden for the employer, that option should be considered since it offers the greatest likelihood for employee satisfaction and conflict-free resolution of the issue.  Ultimately, however, it is the employer’s call as to which accommodation is selected.  As long as that selection is reasonable, the ADA’s requirement is satisfied.