Preventive Law for Employers
Disability, Ergonomics

ADA Accommodations and Ergonomics–Part 4

Ergonomics and Reasonable Accommodations Under the Americans With Disabilities Act 

Part Four of a Four Part Series

 Ann F. Kiernan, Esq. 

In this final part of this series, we continue our look at some recent court decisions involving ergonomics and reasonable accommodations.

Last time, we saw that organizations that acted as reasonable employers when faced with ergonomic changes as part of an ADA accommodation request will have their positions vindicated by the courts.  Unreasonable employers have not done so well.

For example, Cecelia Brown had been an IRS agent for more than 20 years when she asked in November, 2000 for accommodations for her fibromyalgia, including an ergonomic work chair.  Her manager reacted: “I don’t know what reasonable accommodation is and I don’t care what it is.  I don’t have time to fool with it.”  The next month, Ms. Brown took her direct supervisor to the adjacent Collections Department, showed him an ergonomic chair with adjustable lumbar support, and asked for the same model.  He told her that those chairs were only for Collections, but he would order one for her.

Five months later, in April, 2001, the ordered chair was finally delivered, but to Ms. Brown’s dismay, the new chair did not have adjustable lumbar support.  She asked her union for help, and her union rep said “she was worn down and defeated by her efforts to get something as simple as an ergonomic chair to make her work life a little more comfortable.”  After a management representative admitted to the union that she knew the chair was not ergonomic and that it had been purchased because it was cheaper, the union filed a grievance in May, 2001.  Three days later, the requested chair, with adjustable lumbar support, was provided by the Collections Department, where a number of unused ergonomic chairs had been stored the entire six months that Ms. Brown had been asking for one.

Ms. Brown sued for retaliatory harassment based on her requests for reasonable accommodation.  The court denied the IRS’s motion to dismiss the claims, and sent the case on for jury trial to evaluate her “six month battle to receive a chair that was located adjacent to her office space.”  Brown v. Snow, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16297 (E.D. Tenn. 2006)

In a 2007 EEOC case, Heshmat Ansari, a federal employee,complained that he had been discriminated against because of his Iranian national origin and disability when he was denied overtime, not promoted to the position of Director, and denied an ergonomic chair.  Mr. Ansari had received the highest score on the list of eligible applicants, but the Director job remained unfilled.  Further, Mr. Ansari repeatedly requested overtime and an ergonomic chair for his ruptured lumbar vertebrae and discs, but his requests were either ignored or denied while others employees who were not Iranian or disabled were provided with overtime and/or ergonomic chairs.  The agency was ordered to promote Mr. Ansari to the Director position, and pay him back pay and $25,000 in compensatory damages. Heshmat Ansari v. Department of the Treasury, EEOC Appeal Nos. 0720070054, 0120070238 (June 15, 2007).

In Morales v. BellSouth Communications, Inc., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40246 (M.D. Tenn. 2009), Cynthia Morales worked as a customer service representative in a call center, where she responded to both telephone calls and on-line service requests.  She developed back problems and sciatica, and her orthopedist prescribed an ergonomic chair and adjustable desk, so she could alternate sitting and standing while at work.  Like other call center employees, Ms. Morales used a telephone headset, and because of the length of the headset cord and the relatively low height of the standard desk, it was impossible for Ms. Morales to stand and work with the telephone and computer.

Ms. Morales’ supervisor picked out a new spot for Ms. Morales’ workstation, since a raised desk would fit only in certain locations.  The total cost was estimated at $500, and the entire relocation process, once the new chair was delivered, would have taken less than one hour.  But the furniture was never ordered.  Ms. Morales took short-term disability leave and FMLA leave, but her back problems continued to deteriorate.  While on FMLA leave, she e-mailed her supervisor, saying she would be out of work until “this matter of an ergonomic work station (as prescribed by my doctors) [is] rectified.”   A few weeks later, one of her supervisors e-mailed to another that Ms. Morales “said she is not returning until she got a raised desk. … When can I put her off payroll?”  Ms. Morales eventually exhausted her FMLA leave entitlement.

During the interactive process Ms. Morales responded to repeated requests for medical information, and submitted not only her prescription, but also her MRI, treatment notes from her orthopedist, and treatment notes from her physical therapist.  But BellSouth said that was insufficient documentation and denied her request, then terminated her for job abandonment.  She sued for disability discrimination and wrongful termination, and a federal judge denied BellSouth’s summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed to jury trial.

The judge found that: “[T]he record is convincing that all Morales wanted was a raised desk and chair, so she could do her job without intense pain.  That is, Morales was not trying to “game the system” for paid time off or other benefits.  All indications are that Morales really could not suffer through most days at work because of the pain caused by sitting for an extended period of time.”  BellSouth argued that it had acted in good faith during the interactive process, but the federal judge expressed some serious doubts, opining that the e-mails demonstrated that Ms. Morales’ supervisors “were ignoring her request for accommodation and instead looking for a way to remove her from the payroll.”

As we have seen over the course of this series, ergonomics can often supply the solution to an ADA accommodation, but only if both the employer and employee take the interactive process seriously, and keep their minds open to alternatives.  All managers and supervisors should be trained on avoiding disability discrimination, preventing disability harassment, and on their legal responsibilities for recognizing and handling request for reasonable accommodation, as well as your organization’s policies and procedures.


About the author:  Ann F. Kiernan, Esq. has more than 20 years of experience as an employment lawyer, having litigated claims of wrongful discharge and discrimination before state and federal courts and administrative matters before the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.  She focuses her law practice on preventive law for employers, especially legal training for managers.

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Who is Ann Kiernan?

Ann Kiernan is an employment lawyer who has been practicing law in New Jersey for more than 30 years. She represents only employers and management and regularly provides management training companies big and small. Employment law is constantly changing, and Ann is familiar how these changes affect employers. To keep up-to-date and learn what issues are currently affecting businesses and employers in New Jersey, read the blog.

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Ann may be reached via telephone at 732-846-3201 and email.

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