When employers consider whether or not to make an adjustment in job duties or work schedule in order to accommodate an employee with a disability, the question is complicated by the fact that the answer may depend on an opinion, ultimately that of a judge or a jury. Two recent court decisions in Connecticut, one by a state judge and the other by a federal jury, and both involving special education aides in local school districts, illustrate the point.
In the state case, the plaintiff suffered from several debilitating ailments that resulted in frequent absences. She argued that not penalizing her for those absences under the district’s attendance policy was a reasonable accommodation for her disability under Connecticut’s Fair Employment Practices Act. However, the judge dismissed her claims, concluding that regular attendance was an essential part of her job because she was assigned to assist specific special education students.
The federal case involved an aide who injured her shoulder, and thus had difficulty feeding, lifting or toileting her students. Her doctor said she should be placed on light duty, but the school district said that was not an available option, and terminated her. She filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and her case ended up before a jury.
While the employer’s witnesses testified that the duties in question were essential functions, the plaintiff said that several students she worked with only needed classroom help. The jury found in her favor. Her lawyer credited the result in part to the testimony of a co-worker who had physical limitations that were obvious to the jury, but who had been kept on the job while the plaintiff was not.