Permanent “Light-Duty” Position Not Reasonable Accommodation for Disabled Employee Under the ADA

In an unpublished opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the dismissal of a case in favor of an employer who refused to convert a temporary light-duty position into a permanent job for a disabled employee. Wardia v. Campbell County Regional Justice Dept. of Corrections, No. 12-5337, (6th Cir. January 3, 2013). In that case, a juvenile detention center employee who was unable to engage in the physical actions related to restraining juveniles in the facility was discharged, in spite of the fact that he asserted his ability to continue to work indefinitely in a light-duty position into which he had been placed on a temporary basis.

John Wardia became employed as a “youth worker” at the Campbell County, Kentucky, Juvenile Detention Center in 2003. In that position, Wardia supervised and monitored the activities of juveniles committed to the facility, assisted with their “interpersonal skill development,” and engaged in various administrative tasks. Youth workers are required to undergo a three-month long “safe-physical-management-skills” training upon hire and participate in additional training on a monthly basis. While physical restraint actions are not frequent, the written job description of the youth worker position lists the ability to perform physical restraints on juveniles as an essential function of the position.

In or around 2008, Wardia underwent surgery for a non-work-related neck injury. Because his condition prevented him from performing physical restraint actions on the juveniles, Wardia requested and was granted, the temporary accommodation of working in the detention center’s control room upon his return to work after surgery. Subsequently, Wardia’s physician provided information that Wardia’s condition would be permanent, and Wardia was placed on leave without pay on October 18, 2009, to be considered as having resigned if he could not return to work within a one-year period.

Two weeks prior to the expiration of that one-year period, Wardia requested permanent assignment to the control room position to which he previously had been assigned as light-duty, asking for that assignment as a reasonable accommodation for his disability. After a pre-termination hearing, the county’s Department of Juvenile Justice decided against making the assignment on a permanent basis and issued a final notice of termination to Wardia. In a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination, Wardia argued that the restraint of juveniles was not, in fact, an essential function of the youth worker position, since it was rarely necessary for employees to restrain the juveniles. Further, Wardia argued that even if that function was determined to be essential, the permanent assignment to the control room was reasonable.

The lower court disagreed with Wardia’s assertions and granted the county’s motion for summary judgment. That decision was upheld by the Sixth Circuit, which made two notable holdings: (1) in assessing the “essential function” designation of an activity that is rarely performed, a court will look to the seriousness of the consequences of non-performance; and (2) temporary light-duty positions established for recuperating employees need not be converted into permanent positions.

In Wardia’s circumstance, the court determined that the ability to perform physical restraints on the juveniles was, in fact, essential. The potential for physical confrontation exists on a daily basis at the facility, and a staff member who is unable to restrain a juvenile may subject him or herself and the facility to liability from injured employees or juveniles. Wardia’s assertion that certain workers needed assistance with the restraint function was unconvincing to the court, which stated that “[s]imply because some employees more often and more capably perform a certain function does not make it any less essential for everyone else.” Because Wardia was unable to disprove the “essential” nature of the physical restraint function, the court proceeded to address the question of whether Wardia’s request for accommodation was reasonable.

Reasonable accommodation analysis under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that a plaintiff propose an accommodation that is objectively reasonable, thereby shifting the burden to his or her employer to prove that the request is unreasonable under the specific facts. Wardia made two requests: (1) to work all functions other than the physical restraint function, which would have to be handled by co-workers; and (2) permanent assignment to the light-duty control room position. The Sixth Circuit held that neither was reasonable. First, it determined that the need for assistance with the essential physical restraint function is not reasonable because the ADA does not require employers to accommodate individuals by shifting an essential job function to others. Any other approach would render the “essential function” step of the analysis as meaningless. Second, the court held that permanent assignment to a light-duty or rotating position is not reasonable, as it would shift Wardia’s essential job functions to others, leaving his co-workers with the physical restraint functions, as well as his direct juvenile contact functions. The court, citing a prior Sixth Circuit decision, found that temporary light-duty positions for recuperating employees need not be converted into permanent positions. To hold otherwise would frustrate the purpose of the ADA.

While this case arguably assists employers in an often difficult situation of whether to return an employee to work after a lengthy medical absence, the fact that the employer in this case was a juvenile detention facility and the safety of residents and employees was one of the factors in the essential nature of the function at issue may have had a role in the ultimate decision. Employers should react carefully when faced with similar circumstances and should thoroughly and objectively evaluate whether a function is actually essential. However, the court’s decision regarding the necessity for making a temporary light-duty position into a permanent role is more universally applicable and can be considered—again, with objective rationale and documented reasoning—in most circumstances.

Maria Greco Danaher is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins.