Disability Plus Medical Limitations Equals No Accommodation If They Are Not Linked

What happens when an employee has (A) an obvious disability, and (B) a set of unrelated medical limitations needing accommodation?  Read on to “C” the answer.

Edward Youngman worked as a youth counselor at the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center (the “Center”). Following surgery for removal of a pituitary tumor, a portion of his pituitary gland, and his thyroid, he developed hypothyroidism and related complications.

Just Do the Math

After the Center decided to cross train all counselors on their various areas of operation, Youngman was assigned to work in the Control Room.  This area was described in the decision as “packed with electronic equipment that emitted various humming, beeping, or buzzing noises and required the operator to make rapid turning movements in order to monitor multiple video screens, some of which displayed multiple camera feeds from around the detention center.”

Youngman began suffering headaches, dizziness, and head and neck pain. He provided a doctor’s note from his primary physician indicating that he was experiencing motion sickness and should not be assigned to the Control Room.  The Center then sent him for a fitness for duty examination with the county’s physician, who reported that Youngman should not view multiple televisions or monitor screens, avoid rapid alternating movements and flashing lights, and not engage in commercial driving.

Youngman asked if he could continue working but not be assigned to the control room.  The Center said this was not possible (the decision never explained why they felt that way) and placed Youngman on a medical leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  After his FMLA leave concluded, the Center filled Youngman’s job but continued his medical leave until he could return to work in an available opening.  After some time passed, Youngman sued the Center in Federal Court for failure to accommodate his disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and corresponding state law.  The trial court dismissed the claim and Youngman appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Accommodation Demand Does Not Add Up

Youngman had some legitimate concerns, mainly with respect to why the Center refused to modify their cross-training requirement so he could skip the Control Room, and why they never proposed any alternatives other than simply putting him on a leave of absence.  However, Youngman never got that far because the Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal based on one threshold and overriding principle – the limitation that Youngman wanted the Center to accommodate (seasickness symptoms) was not actually caused by his disability (hypothyroidism).

The Court explained that while Youngman most likely did suffer from a cognizable disability and also had obvious medical limitation affecting his job performance, he never produced proof that the disability and the limitations were related.  In fact, Youngman’s own physician testified that he found no connection between motion sickness and Youngman’s hypothyroidism (or the medications that he took to control it).

The Court concluded that in the absence of such evidence, Youngman could not prove that the Center’s failure to accommodate his limitations was discrimination “based on” his (unrelated) disability.

Bottom Line 

There is a simple equation that needs to be followed in every situation where accommodation is requested: Factor A (the medical condition in general terms) + Factor B (the actual restrictions imposed by the condition) = Factor C (accommodation decision).  If the employer is not aware of the medical condition (Factor A), they cannot complete the equation because they do not know if accommodation is required.  Similarly, if they know the condition but not the actual restrictions (Factor B), they cannot determine what the right accommodation(s) might be.

Sometimes, health care providers try to solve the equation for the employer but get the math wrong.  They tell the employer what the condition is and then direct that the employee not work in a certain department, not perform a specific job responsibility.  And yet, that doctor has never seen the job being performed or visited the work site – how then can that doctor know what the employee can or cannot do, or whether the employer might know of an accommodation that will allow the employee to work?

Similarly, as in the Youngman situation, the doctor will identify the restrictions that an employee has but fail to link them to any sort of identifiable medical condition/disability.

The key for the employer is to get the right information.  Find out in very general terms (you don’t need an extended or detailed diagnosis) what the medical condition is and what restrictions are imposed by it. That gives you the necessary link to know that there is a disability at issue and accommodation must be considered.

It’s as simple as A, B, C.