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Part-time Work as a Reasonable Accommodation?

part time case cotney
March 16, 2022 at 6:00 a.m.

By Trent Cotney.

The results of a recent case before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals are of interest to all employers regarding when termination is justified and when you need to make other accommodations 

If you are an employer, you know how crucial it is to understand your employees’ needs and accommodate them as much as possible. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you are responsible for making accommodations when possible. It is not only the law; the practice is also good for worker relations and morale. But what if a requested accommodation seems unreasonable?

That was the issue in a recent case before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

What the case was about

In Lamm vs. Devaughn James, LLC (No. 19-3167, 10th Cir. Feb. 7, 2022), an employee at a law firm was experiencing chronic anxiety and was excessively absent. In her role as a case manager, this employee was expected to work 40 hours a week so she could complete her client-facing and administrative tasks. She received 120 hours of paid time off each year, and the firm’s policy stated that being absent beyond those 120 hours could result in termination.

In 2015, she was warned about her absenteeism, but it did not exceed 120 hours. However, 2016 was a different story. She was out 133.5 days in only the first six months of that year. In May, she explained that she had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which resulted in panic attacks. Per her therapist’s recommendation, she requested to work part-time. The firm advised her that her job required 40 hours a week. She was offered one week off without pay, but she declined that offer. On June 23, 2016, her employment was terminated by the firm.

What the plaintiff alleged

The employee responded by suing the firm. She claimed that the firm had discriminated against her, and its actions violated the ADA. The firm made a motion for a summary judgment, and it was granted. Then the employee appealed that judgment, so the case went before the 10th Circuit.

How the court ruled

The court ruled that the firm was justified in terminating the employee because she was unqualified for the role. This decision was based on two issues: 1) if the employee could perform the essential functions of her job, and 2) if there was a reasonable accommodation that would help the employee perform her job functions. Based on those factors, the court determined that the employee was not qualified for her role. Her job required regular, predictable attendance, so her excessive absenteeism prevented her from being successful. Further, the part-time employment accommodation was seen as unreasonable since it would not enable her to perform the necessary job functions.

In addition, the court stated that since the firm warned her about her absences and offered an unpaid week off, termination was warranted. Therefore, there was no evidence of discrimination, and the firm was not required to make further accommodations.

What this ruling means

The results of this case are of interest to all employers. The court ruled that the part-time employment request was not a reasonable accommodation. However, you should use caution before terminating an employee with similar circumstances. Take the time to carefully evaluate the situation in question and determine if there are reasonable accommodations you can make. To protect your company, it is critical that you follow the requirements of the ADA and EEOC.

If you are facing a similar employee issue, you may benefit from legal advice. An experienced labor attorney can help you understand when termination is justified and when you need to make other accommodations.   

The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.

Trent Cotney is a partner at Adams & Reese, LLP. For more information on this subject, please contact the author at trent.cotney@arlaw.com or go to www.adamsandreese.com.

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