Reasonable Accommodations and an Employer’s ‘Undue Hardship’ in New York Disability Discrimination Cases

Incurring a disability after several years on the job can be incredibly frustrating. You’ve worked in your role successfully for many years but now, thanks to a condition over which you have no control, your ability to do your job are impaired. For some of these workers, certain accommodations can allow them to return to productivity. If you’re a worker like that and your employer has denied you the accommodation you need, it’s possible your employer’s decision constitutes illegal disability discrimination. A knowledgeable New York disability discrimination lawyer can help you assess your situation and plot the best path forward.

S.G., a computer specialist for the transit authority, was one of those workers, according to his disability discrimination lawsuit.

He’d held his specialist job since 1999. Several studies have linked jobs with high amounts of keyboard and mouse use with elevated risks of wrist tendonitis, including wrist tenosynovitis. One study showed “a significant 4% increase in risk (hazard ratio) for hand-arm diagnoses for every hour of keying performed per week. A majority of these diagnoses fall in the category of wrist tendonitis.”

S.G., like many others in his field, developed wrist problems. By November 2018, the specialist’s doctor had limited him to a total of four hours of keyboard and mouse use per day, with no session lasting longer than 30 minutes at a time. If he suffered a flare-up, his limitations prevented him from doing any typing or mousing. These limitations led the employer to place the specialist on medical leave.

The specialist had an idea to address his limitations. He proposed that, as a disability accommodation, his employer install voice dictation software on his work computer. The employer did not grant that accommodation, leaving S.G. to file for early retirement. After that, he filed a disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

The employer attacked the specialist’s claims on multiple fronts in a motion for summary judgment, contending that the employee’s wrist condition did not qualify as a disability under the law and that the employee’s proposed accommodation — the installation of voice dictation software — would have imposed an undue burden on the employer.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected summary judgment on both of these assertions. The court, at the outset, reminded readers of what the ADA requires in terms of a qualifying disability. “A person is disabled within the meaning of the ADA if he has a physical . . . impairment that substantially limits one or more [of his] major life activities.” The group of major life activities contemplated by the law includes “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks… standing, lifting, bending… communicating and working.” among other things.

When it comes to working, the law is clear that a worker’s inability to do a single job does not make his condition a disability, but his inability to do an entire class or “broad range of jobs” does.

An Inability to Use a Computer Ruled Out a Wide Array of Jobs

S.G. met this hurdle with his wrist condition. His tendonitis allegedly limited his ability to work a computer programming job, or “any job that requires extensive computer use.” This range of jobs that necessitated “extensive computer use” was broad enough to overcome summary judgment.

Even if an employee has a qualifying disability, his employer does not automatically have to grant his preferred accommodation. One reason an employer may permissibly refuse an accommodation is if that accommodation would represent what the law calls an “undue hardship.” The ADA says that undue hardship is something that would necessarily involve “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer.

When it comes to analyzing an undue hardship assertion, courts can consider the nature of the accommodation, the price tag, the “effect on expenses and resources,” the size of the business, and “the composition, structure, and functions” of the employer’s workforce.

In S.G.’s case, he had proof, including an expert witness testimony, that effectively backed up his assertion that the software would not have imposed an undue hardship on the employer. This proof was enough to overcome summary judgment and require resolution at trial.

Workers with disabilities should not be denied the accommodations they need to perform their jobs successfully, except in the rare circumstance where that accommodation would genuinely represent a substantial undue hardship on the employer. If you’ve lost your job (or suffered some other adverse employment action) as a result of your employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate your disability, the knowledgeable New York disability discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here for you. Our team has successfully handled the cases of countless workers harmed by workplace disability discrimination, so we know how to get justice for you. To find out more, contact us online or at (866) 229-9441 to set up a free and confidential consultation today.

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