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Are Disabled Employees Entitled To Have Co-Workers Assist Them In Performing Job Duties?

Disability Discrimination

Throughout the past twenty years, our Marion County, Florida wrongful termination lawyers have fought for the rights of wrongful termination victims. Through the extensive experience representing wrongful termination victims, our Ocala, Florida wrongful termination lawyers know that disabled employees often need assistance from co-workers to perform certain duties of their job that they are unable to perform because of their disability. Instead of providing disabled workers with co-worker assistance under such circumstances, employers routinely fire disabled workers because of their inability to do the job. In this article, our Marion County, Florida wrongful termination attorneys explain how the decision in Orchard v. City of Novi, Case No. 21-cv-10613 (E.D. Mich. May 11, 2022) demonstrates that federal employment discrimination law in some circumstances requires employers to provide disabled workers with co-worker assistance in performing certain job duties that they cannot perform by virtue of their disability.

Employee Rights Under ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of disability. Under the ADA, employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with a disability. Reasonable accommodations under the ADA include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, and acquisition or modification of equipment. Under the ADA, an employer engages in unlawful discrimination when the employer does not reasonably accommodate a disabled employee. Thus, as the court in Selenke v. Med. Imaging of Colo., 248 F.3d 1249 (10th Cir. 2001) explained, the ADA “establishes a cause of action for disabled employees whose employers fail to reasonably accommodate them.” Moreover, when employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate a disabled worker culminates the in the disabled worker’s termination, the employer has unlawfully fired the employee in violation of the ADA.

Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

In Orchard, a man named Orchard brought a failure to accommodate claim against his former employer, the City of Novi (the City), pursuant to the ADA. Orchard claims that the City violated the ADA by denying his request for an accommodation for his disability. Orchard further claims that instead of accommodating his disability and enabling him to continue his employment, the City unlawfully fired him because of his disability in violation of the ADA.

Orchard worked or the City for twenty-five years. For his last fifteen years, he worked as a Sign Technician. In that position, he made, installed, and replaced traffic and street signs. Installing a sign involved two workers inside an aerial lift: one person to hold a pole and the other to operate a jackhammer. The jackhammer weighs more than 50 pounds, but a pole only weighed a few pounds. After the jackhammer drove the pole into the ground, one worker held the aluminum sign, while the other worker bolted the sign into place.

During his employment, Orchard was injured when a jackhammer fell on him and shattered his shoulder. Orchard endured three shoulder surgeries in eighteen months to repair his shoulder. After his last surgery, his doctor explained that Orchard needed a permanent work restriction to not lift more than twenty-five pounds with his right arm. Orchard’s doctor believed that he could do all his job’s essential functions expect lift and carry fifty pounds or more.

Refusal To Accommodate

The City’s Human Resources Director determined that the restrictions ordered by Orchard’s doctor were requests to accommodate under the ADA and denied the request in a letter without explanation. The letter instead encouraged Orchard to apply for disability retirement. When Orchard reached out to the Human Resources Director about his work restrictions, she told him, “You’re not coming back with restrictions.” The Human Resources Director added that the City has “never,” during her employment tenure, had an employee “on permanent restrictions.”

Ultimately, Orchard met with the Human Resources Director. During the meeting, Orchard pleaded with the Human Resources Director to make “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. Orchard explained that the only task he struggled with was lifting the fifty-pound jackhammer. Orchard also pointed out that installing signs is a “two-man job” and he did not even need to operate the jackhammer. Instead, another co-worker could lift and operate the jackhammer. Toward the end of the meeting, the Human Resources Director told Orchard, “Assuming that you get your disability retirement and you get better to where you can do your job without restrictions, then you can come back.” Since being fired, Orchard has had trouble finding another job. His health insurance is worse. And his pension from the City was slashed.

Request For Co-Worker Assistance Is Reasonable

The City filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Orchard’s disability discrimination claims. In support of its motion for dismissal, the City argued that Orchard’s requested accommodation was unreasonable because the ADA does not require the City to assign a co-worker to assist Orchard perform the duties of his position. Because Orchard’s requested accommodation was unreasonable, the City maintained, it was lawfully entitled to fire Orchard because he could not perform the essential functions of his position. The trial court denied the City’s motion for dismissal and ruled that it was for a jury to decide whether Orchard’s proposed accommodation was reasonable.

In denying the City’s motion for dismissal, the trial court explained that although employers are not required to “assign existing employees or hire new employees to perform certain functions or duties of a disabled employee’s job which the employee cannot perform by virtue of his disability,” courts have not adopted a “bright-line rule that any request to have co-workers perform certain duties is unreasonable.” In other words, the trial court observed, there are circumstances where a request for co-worker assistance to perform certain functions or duties of a disabled employee’s job which the employee cannot perform by virtue of his or her disability constitutes a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The trial court determined that “a jury could find [Orchard’s] proposed reallocation was objectively reasonable.” In support of its finding, the trial court explained that “installing signposts is a two-person job” and, thus, because “another worker would need to help [Orchard] either by holding a signpost or the jackhammer, reallocating the jackhammer responsibilities to the other worker does not change how many daily tasks the other worker must do.” Thus, the trial court concluded that “a jury could find that the proposed reallocation is objectively reasonable” and that the City was required to accommodate Orchard by providing him with co-worker assistance to perform jackhammer duties that he cannot perform because of his disability.

Marion County Wrongful Termination Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing workers throughout Florida, our wrongful termination attorneys in Marion County, Florida have litigated wrongful termination cases in Florida courts for more than twenty years. If you have wrongfully fired or have questions about your rights as a wrongful termination victim, please contact our office for a free consultation with our wrongful termination lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes wrongful termination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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