Employers MUST Consider Job Restructuring as a Reasonable Accommodation

In Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care VII, LLC, 769 F.3d 958 (7th Cir. 2014), the plaintiff was employed by the defendant nursing home - where she worked in the nursing home beauty parlor as a hairdresser for the residents, in addition to other responsibilities, including working in the laundry. Because many of the residents were wheelchair-bound, on Mondays and Tuesdays the plaintiff had to wheel those residents back and forth between the beauty parlor and their living quarters, which were separate buildings on the nursing home campus. She would do the hair of the other, non-wheelchair-bound residents on other days. Id. at 960-62.

Following a hysterectomy and accompanying surgery for a prolapsed bladder, the plaintiff returned to work at the nursing home with restrictions preventing her from pushing more than 20lbs. Id. Given that the residents whom she wheeled ranged in weight from 75 to 400lbs, the plaintiff told the nursing home about the restriction and requested a reasonable accommodation, including the possibility of working full-time in the laundry facility. Id. In response, the nursing home baulked, stating, ""we just don't allow people to work with restrictions, and you have a restriction on here.... [A]s long as you've got the restriction we can't employ you." Forced to resign, the plaintiff brought suit. Id. at 961.

In granting summary judgment in favor of the nursing home, the district judge ruled that "wheeling patients to and from the beauty parlor is an essential part of the hairdressers' job and therefore there was no reasonable accommodation to the plaintiff's disability that would enable her to meet the employer's reasonable expectations." Id. at 961. However the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court's ruling, finding, among other things, the employer had an obligation to engage in an interactive process to determine whether any reasonable accommodation, including job restructuring, would have been available (of course, so long as it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer). Id. at 963. The court further reasoned that, "if a minor adjustment in the work duties of a couple of other employees would have enabled the plaintiff despite her disability to perform the essential duties of her job as a hairdresser, the nursing home's refusal to consider making such an adjustment was unlawful." Id at 963. - Summary by Michael Gerould