Monday, October 1, 2012

10th Circuit Finds Transferring Disabled Employee to Different Geographical Location for Better Access to Medical Care is Reasonable Accommodation

A long-time secretarial employee of the United States Forest Service (“Forest Service”), Clarice Sanchez, suffered irreversible brain damage after falling at work. As a result of her injury, Sanchez lost the left half of her field of vision. She requested a hardship transfer to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she could better access ongoing medical treatment. After the Forest Service declined to accommodate her request, she brought suit under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 791. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Forest Service, concluding that Sanchez was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit disagreed and held that Sanchez raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding her disability.  The Court further held that transfer accommodations for the purpose of medical treatment or therapy are not unreasonable per se, even if the employee is able to perform the functions of their job. 

What makes this case interesting is that neither party contended that Sanchez could not perform her job.  However, Sanchez had difficulty reading due to her limited vision.  When Sanchez's work began suffering, her work environment allegedly began to deteriorate. According to Sanchez, her supervisor and coworkers mocked her brain injury saying that she was “crazy,” “not all there,” and “not right in the head.” She also alleges that her supervisor made gestures to this effect. Thus, in 2006, Sanchez took a pay cut to accept an accounting technician position with the Forest Service in Albuquerque.  Sanchez filed suit under the Rehabilitation Act and both parties moved for summary judgment with the Forest Service arguing that Sanchez's impairment did not substantially limit her so as to qualify as a disability under the Rehabilitation Act.  The district court agreed with the Forest Service on the issue of Sanchez not qualifying as disabled and therefore did not need to address the issue of accommodation.

The 10th Circuit found that Sanchez provided plenty of evidence that she has a qualifying disability for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.  The Court then focused on the Forest Service's alternative argument that the Rehabilitation Act does not contemplate transfer accommodations for employees who require medical treatment despite being able to perform the essential functions of their jobs.  In finding that it does, the Court cited several other circuits--primarily the 7th Circuit--that have held that transfers for medical treatment also fall within the Rehabilitation Act’s ambit.

No comments:

Post a Comment