Recent 7th Circuit Case Highlights Best Practices for Accommodating Disabilities

March 12, 2018

Reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can be a difficult area for employers to navigate. A recent case from the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Wisconsin employers) provides a helpful example of how you should clearly spell out job requirements and qualifications so you can better respond to potential issues.

What is a Reasonable Accommodation?

Most of you are probably familiar with the general requirements of the ADA, which include making reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities that allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. In the context of the ADA, a reasonable accommodation may include things such as job restructuring, a part-time or modified work schedule, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, or adjustments or modifications to examinations such as licensing and certification tests. However, that doesn’t mean that you must accommodate every employee who requests an accommodation or comply with every accommodation request an employee makes. Rather, the ADA requires you to accommodate only employees who are otherwise qualified individuals.

A qualified individual is someone who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, is capable of performing the essential functions of the job to which he is assigned or applying for. When determining whether a person is a qualified individual, a court will look first at whether he has satisfied the prerequisites of the job, including whether he has the education, training, work experience, or skills necessary to perform the job duties.

If the person meets those requirements, the court will look to whether he can perform the essential functions of the job. The court will defer to the employer’s judgment on what the essential functions of the job entail. The court will also look at the written job description, the time the employee spends performing each function, and the past and current experiences of employees in the same job.

You can avoid potential issues and guide your response to requests for accommodation by maintaining clearly written job descriptions that detail essential functions and specific job qualifications. Not only does that help you set employees’ expectations going into a particular job, but it also helps you clarify when an employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation. A recent 7th Circuit case demonstrates how clearly defined qualifications and job descriptions can help you determine if you need to provide a reasonable accommodation.

So How Does the Accommodation Process Play out in Practice?

Yasas Rodrigo was a resident and employee at Carle Foundation Hospital. The residency program provides training to medical school graduates as part of their licensing requirements. The three-year program is controlled by annual contracts between the hospital and its residents, and by policies adopted by the hospital. If a resident successfully completes certain practical requirements during each year of the program, then his contract is renewed and he continues on in the program.

To advance to the third and final year of the residency program, residents at Carle are required to pass the third part of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which is a prerequisite to being able to practice medicine in the United States. The hospital has a written “three strikes and you’re out” policy regarding the USMLE. If a resident fails part three of the test three times, he will be terminated from the program. The hospital’s policy is to graduate only residents who are eligible to take a medical board exam and become fully licensed physicians. Completing the USMLE is a prerequisite to being eligible to take a board exam.

During his first two years in the residency program, Rodrigo struggled to complete certain practical requirements as part of the rotations. The hospital granted him extensions during each year to complete remedial training, and he ultimately returned to good standing in the program. At the end of his second year, Rodrigo took part three of the USMLE and failed. After reporting the results to the hospital, he was granted an extension on his second year to study for the exam.

During his communications with the hospital about the test results, Rodrigo reported that he was suffering from a sleep disorder and other issues brought on by the stress of the program and trying to pass the USMLE. He took part three of the USMLE a second time, and again he failed. The hospital reminded him that another failed attempt to pass the USMLE would result in termination from the residency program. He was granted a leave of absence to prepare for the exam, but he again failed to pass it.

Was Rodrigo Entitled to a Reasonable Accommodation?

After striking out on part three of the USMLE, Rodrigo told the hospital that test taking was difficult for him and he was certain that fatigue due to his sleep disorder was the major factor in his poor test scores. Pursuant to the hospital’s policy, he wasn’t offered a third-year contract and was terminated from the residency program.

Rodrigo requested reinstatement on the grounds that the hospital failed to accommodate his severe insomnia brought about by the stress of the program and trying to pass the USMLE. The hospital denied his request, and he sued, claiming discrimination under the ADA. After the trial court granted the hospital’s request for summary judgment (dismissal of the case without a trial), Rodrigo appealed to the 7th Circuit.

On appeal, the hospital argued that Rodrigo wasn’t a qualified individual under the ADA, and therefore, no accommodation was necessary. The court of appeals agreed, explaining that although Rodrigo was an employee in the residency program, he wasn’t entitled to advance through the program unless he met certain prerequisites, such as passing part three of the USMLE.

The court relied on the hospital’s written policies and job descriptions, which made clear that to advance to the third year of the residency program, Rodrigo was required to successfully complete the first two years of the practical training and pass part three of the USMLE in no more than three attempts. If he failed to meet those requirements, he was simply ineligible to advance. Because he wasn’t qualified for a third-year residency position, he wasn’t entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

It should be noted that the hospital did provide an accommodation to assist Rodrigo in taking part three of the USMLE for the third time: It allowed him to take three weeks off to prepare for the exam. Employers may need to consider such accommodations when they are necessary to assist disabled employees in taking tests. Rodrigo v. Carle Foundation Hospital, No. 16-1403 (7th Cir., Jan. 2, 2018).

Bottom Line

So what can you and your company learn from this case? The bottom line is that clearly written job requirements and qualifications, along with clear job descriptions, will help you comply with the ADA. Such documents have the added benefit of letting your employees know what is expected of them.

This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured in the February 2018 issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is co-edited by Axley Brynelson Attorneys Saul Glazer and Michael Modl and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.