Demotion Can Be Reasonable Accommodation Under ADA

 

By C. Grainger Pierce Jr. February 10, 2020
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​An employer properly offered a demotion to an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Marion County, Ind., Sheriff's Department employed the plaintiff as a sworn deputy sheriff. In 2012, the plaintiff severely injured her hand in a car accident while on duty. As a result of the injury, the plaintiff never regained full use of her injured hand.

The sheriff's department assigned the plaintiff light-duty tasks while she underwent treatment. This continued for approximately a year until her doctors indicated that she would never be able to resume her duties as a deputy sheriff. 

The sheriff's department then offered the plaintiff three choices: resign, be fired or move to a civilian clerk position. The third option was essentially a demotion and involved a decrease in pay. Given the plaintiff's injury, there were no available vacant positions equivalent to her prior role as a sheriff's deputy.

The plaintiff stated that she wanted to continue working at the sheriff's department and requested some accommodations related to her disability. Over a period of weeks, the parties discussed accommodations to determine the plaintiff's new role. After observing other workers in various civilian clerk roles, the plaintiff accepted employment as a clerk in the jail visitation office. 

Following her reassignment, she sued the sheriff's department. The plaintiff claimed that the sheriff's department violated the ADA by demoting her to a civilian clerk role when there were better jobs available. The district court dismissed the claim, and the plaintiff appealed.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court and held that a demotion was acceptable when an employee with a disability could not be accommodated in his or her prior job or an equivalent role. The court specifically referenced the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's interpretive guidance on the issue, stating that "[a]n employer may reassign an individual to a lower graded position if … there are no vacant equivalent positions for which the individual is qualified with or without reasonable accommodation." 

Noting that the plaintiff failed to present any evidence that any vacant equivalent positions were available, the court reaffirmed that the ADA obligates an employer only "to provide a qualified individual with a reasonable accommodation, not the accommodation he would prefer." 

Ford v. Marion County Sheriff's Office, 7th Cir., No. 18-3217 (Nov. 15, 2019).

Professional Pointer: This case highlights the importance of carefully documenting discussions about reasonable accommodation. An employer should be able to provide evidence of its analysis of a requested accommodation and possible alternatives, such as other available positions, and the employee's written acceptance of the accommodation. 

C. Grainger Pierce Jr. is an attorney with Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Pierce PLLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Charlotte, N.C.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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