Preventive Law for Employers
Disability, Ergonomics, Harassment and Discrimination

ADA and Ergonomics–Part 3 of 4

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the ADA’s mandate for reasonable accommodations, and reviewed a reasonable accommodation case study where ergonomics played a leading role. In the next two parts, we will look at some recent court decisions involving ergonomics and reasonable accommodations.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces not only the ADA and the 2009 ADA amendments, but also the ADA’s predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, when an employee asks for an ergonomic accommodation, the employer has the right to ask for medical documentation. As detailed in the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees:

Example B: An accountant with no known disability asks for an ergonomic chair because she says she is having back pain. The employer asks the employee to provide documentation from her treating physician that: (1) describes the nature, severity, and duration of her impairment, the activity or activities that the impairment limits, and the extent to which the impairment limits her ability to perform the activity or activities; and (2) substantiates why an ergonomic chair is needed.

Here, the employee’s possible disability and need for reasonable accommodation are not obvious. Therefore, if the employee fails to provide the requested documentation or if the documentation does not demonstrate the existence of a disability, the employer can refuse to provide the chair.

In Stoltman v. Federal Express Corp., 83 Fed. Appx. 898 (9th Cir. 2003), a disabled employee claimed discrimination because she did not get the ergonomic chair she had asked for, and was fired shortly after making her request. The federal appeals courts rejected her claim of discrimination, explaining:

Defendant complied with all of Plaintiff’s requested accommodations except for providing an ergonomic chair. Defendant gave her two headsets, a larger keyboard, assistance with covering her expanded territory, and a paid leave of absence.

With respect to the request for an ergonomic chair, Defendant did not reject the proposed accommodation. Rather, Defendant conditioned supplying the chair on the receipt of a current prescription, which Plaintiff did not provide, and meanwhile proposed a practical alternative by ordering a high-backed chair. This interactive process was still ongoing at the time of Plaintiff’s termination, and thus there is no evidence that Defendant failed to accommodate Plaintiff with respect to the requested chair.

Defendant offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Plaintiff’s employment. She was fired for violating Defendant’s mileage reimbursement policy… Moreover, there is affirmative evidence that the same manager had recently fired another, non-disabled employee for a similarly trivial violation of the reimbursement policy: using a long-distance calling card for a personal call.

In another ergonomic chair case, Cathy Melitski, a New Jersey state worker, had been hit by a car while walking to work, and suffered severe neck injuries, requiring surgery and resulting in limited neck mobility and pain exacerbated by prolonged sitting. She was granted a 13-month medical leave, and a month after she returned to work Ms. Melitski made an accommodation request for a part-time schedule, a stand-up desk, and a special Bodybilt ergonomic chair that cost more than $1,000.

In response, the State adjusted her schedule, bought her a stand-up desk, and provided two non-Bodybilt ergonomic chairs. Ms. Melitski insisted that she had to have the Bodybilt chair, and sued for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. The State then bought her the Bodybilt chair, but she persisted in her lawsuit. The State argued that the first two chairs were reasonable, and that it had acted in good faith to resolve her ADA accommodation request. The State prevailed, and Ms. Melitski lost at trial because she did not present any evidence from her doctors proving that the Bodybilt chair was the only chair that would accommodate her disability. Melitski v.State, No. A-3848-07 (N.J. App. Div. 2009).

David Glow wanted a different type of ergonomic chair: a special ergonomic locomotive engineer’s seat. His employer, the Union Pacific Railroad, said that was unrealistic, since it owned more than 8,000 locomotives, any one of which Mr. Glow could be called upon to operate. The railroad offered to buy Mr. Glow a neck support or seat support, which he could use both on and off the job, or to consider any other recommendation his doctor made. But neither Mr. Glow nor his doctor ever followed up on the offer, so a federal court threw out Mr. Glow’s disability discrimination case, finding that Union Pacific had done everything in its power to find a reasonable accommodation. Glow v. Union Pacific RR, 652 F. Supp. 2d 1135 (E.D. Cal., 2009)

And then there is the case of Donald Stewart, a deputy sheriff in Wisconsin, who was assigned to monitor courthouse security, watching video screens that monitored courthouse activity. The ergonomics of the security post did not meet his needs, and Mr. Stewart’s chiropractor recommended that Mr. Stewart sit at slightly above eye level with the monitors, that he rotate his position once or twice an hour, that the lighting be softened, and that he be provided a more comfortable chair. The County built a platform in the security room, installed mini-blinds on the windows and film on the doors to minimize glare, and purchased an ergonomic chair, but that wasn’t enough for Mr. Stewart, who sued for failure to accommodate his neck and back problems.

A federal appeals court dismissed his case, explaining: “ [W]e confess that is difficult for us to imagine how much more Brown County could have done with the security room and the conditions of his employment to make life more comfortable, short of giving Stewart a blank check and full authority to order a complete rehab of the building.” Stewart v. County of Brown, 86 F.3d 107 (7th Cir. 1996)

Next time: The conclusion of our survey of recent ADA reasonable accommodation cases involving ergonomics.

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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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