Seventh Circuit Clarifies Standards for Rehabilitation Act Liability

January 23, 2021 8:53 AM | Carson Griffis (Administrator)

By:  Linda Sackey

In Conners v. Wilkie, No. 19-2426, the Seventh Circuit addressed what can be a thorny issue in employment law, namely, when an employee will be considered a “qualified individual with a disability” under the Rehabilitation Act.

Beginning in 2006, Priscilla Conners was employed as a licensed practical nurse (“LPN”) at a facility operated by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”). Among her duties were to treat and monitor patients, give immunizations, manage the front desk, teach classes, and complete paperwork. Conners also was expected to handle medical emergencies. Her job description specified that an LPN should have the physical ability to, among other things, lift, stand, bend, stoop, stretch, and pull without help from another patient care provider.

In October 2011, Conners was struck by an automobile. She suffered severe injuries that required surgery and that hindered her performance of most of her nursing duties. At first, Conners’s supervisor limited her responsibilities to teaching and paperwork. But in March 2013, senior management at the healthcare facility discovered the full impact of her disability on her work and directed her to submit a formal accommodation request. Conners asked for five accommodations. She requested a private office, the option to elevate her leg for roughly 15 minutes every hour or so, a footstool, no standing for more than 15 minutes at a time, and a limitation on walking for more than 25 yards absent an emergency.

Although it agreed to provide a footstool, the VA did not grant the other accommodations because a major component of an LPN’s job is to see patients and to administer immunizations, which require standing and walking. In June 2013, the VA determined that she could not perform the essential functions of an LPN even with reasonable accommodations. Conners later declined the VA’s proposed reassignment to a different position and its option of a medical-disability retirement. In January 2014, her employment was terminated.

Thereafter, Conners sued the Secretary of the VA, claiming in part that the agency failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. The district court granted summary judgment in the VA’s favor, reasoning that Conners had not presented evidence that she was a qualified individual with a disability, an essential element of a failure to accommodate claim.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit observed that an employer may be liable for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act if it fails to “mak[e] reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee,” unless the employer can show that “the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the [employer’s] business.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). Further, the employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee may require a reassignment to a vacant position. Id. § 12111(9)(B).

The Seventh Circuit noted that assessing whether an employee was a qualified individual with a disability generally involves a two-step inquiry. Courts first ask whether the plaintiff possesses the basic qualifications for the job. Next, courts ask whether the plaintiff can perform the essential functions of the job—as reflected in, for example, the employee’s written job description and the amount of time the employee spends performing the function—with or without reasonable accommodations.

In this case, the Seventh Circuit found it undisputed that Conners satisfied the basic prerequisites for the position. However, the physical limitations that followed her accidence in 2011 prevented Conners from performing most of the responsibilities of an LPN. Her inability to stand or walk more than 25 yards at a time made it impossible for her to perform the physical requirements set forth in her job description. The Seventh Circuit rejected Conners’s argument that her ability to perform a reduced set of duties after the accident meant that she could perform the essential elements of the LPN position. The court found that an employer is not required to either create a new job or reduce the principal duties of an existing job to accommodate a disabled employee.

Although she was not qualified to work as an LPN, the Seventh Circuit noted that Conners also could have shown that she was qualified to perform the essential duties of a different vacant position at the VA. Her failure to do so, the court concluded, meant that no reasonable jury could conclude that the VA discriminated against Conners when it failed to reassign her.

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