Employers Make Disability Assumptions at Their Own Risk

$900,000 verdict for plaintiff upheld

By Scott M. Wich Jul 6, 2017
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​At times, human resource professionals must base employment decisions on assumptions when needed information is unavailable. Care must be taken to avoid relying on assumptions, however, where a legal obligation requires an employer to attempt to gather information. As recently concluded by an Iowa appeals court, unilateral conclusions reached about an employee's medical limitations can lead to significant liability—$900,000 in this case.

John Vetter was an employee with the Department of Natural Resources for the State of Iowa. He suffered a back injury in 2011 and was placed on a leave of absence. In January 2012, he returned to light-duty work. He gradually resumed his normal job duties but still required assistance from co-workers in moving heavy objects.

In September 2012, Vetter underwent a functional capacity exam (FCE). The results of the exam set forth Vetter's limitations on activities such as sitting, standing, walking, climbing and bending each day. It also established a permanent restriction on squatting. Several months later, the Iowa workers' compensation administrator sent Vetter's employer a list of the FCE restrictions and asked if it could accommodate them.

The Department of Natural Resources sought input from HR, legal advisors and consultants for guidance on whether Vetter could be accommodated in the job given the restrictions set forth in the FCE. It conducted two workplace assessments, primarily based on information provided by Vetter's supervisor. Notably, Vetter was never contacted regarding his job duties or possible need for accommodations. The department concluded that the accommodations needed to address the limitations set forth in the FCE would be an undue hardship. As such, the employer terminated Vetter.

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

Vetter sued under Iowa's disability discrimination law, which is analogous to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. A jury found that Vetter had been discriminated against based on his disability and a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. The court awarded Vetter more than $900,000 in damages.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for Iowa upheld the jury verdict. With regard to the claim of disability discrimination, the court noted that the department's explanation for termination—that the cost of accommodating the limitations would be unduly burdensome—was, by definition, discrimination based on Vetter's disability. Notably, the court's decision did not address any affirmative defense, if one was raised, of undue hardship.

On the failure-to-accommodate claim, the appeals court dismissed arguments that Vetter was obligated to notify his employer of the need for an accommodation. Based on the fact that the employer knew of Vetter's injury, initially accommodated it with light-duty work and was made aware of the FCE restrictions, it was on notice of the possible need to accommodate even though Vetter himself had not raised the issue. By failing to include Vetter in the process of identifying a possible accommodation, the department failed in its obligation to engage in the interactive process for identifying disability accommodations. In so failing, the employer did not fulfill its duty to reasonably accommodate Vetter.

Vetter v. Iowa, Iowa Ct. App., No. 16-0208 (May 17, 2017).

Professional Pointer: While the interactive process for identifying a reasonable accommodation can at times be cumbersome and frustrating, it is essential in order to stave off disability discrimination claims. Unilateral investigations and determinations of accommodation issues can leady to faulty, and costly, courses of action.

Scott M. Wich is an attorney with Clifton Budd & DeMaria, LLP in New York City.

 

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