7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Failure to Accommodate Claim

On January 14, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a failure to accommodate lawsuit under the federal Rehabilitation Act.  Conners v. Robert Wilke, No. 19-2426 (7th Cir. Jan. 14, 2021).  The plaintiff worked as a nurse at a VA hospital.  Her job duties included treating and observing patients, giving immunizations, managing the front desk, teaching classes, and filling out paperwork.  After she was involved in an automobile accident, her injuries impeded her ability to perform most of her nursing duties.  Her supervisor initially permitted her to retain her position, but reduced her job responsibilities to only teaching and paperwork.  Subsequently, the VA concluded that she could not perform the essential duties of her position, even with reasonable accommodations, and it terminated her employment.

She filed a lawsuit against the VA under the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that it failed to accommodate her disability.  The Rehabilitation Act is the federal public sector equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  To establish a failure to accommodate claim, a plaintiff must first prove that she was a qualified individual with a disability when she was terminated.  This means that she was capable of performing the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  An employer covered by the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act may be liable for disability discrimination if it fails to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee with a disability, unless the employer can show that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.  The duty to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee may require a reassignment to a vacant position.  The elements of a claim for failure to accommodate an employee's disability are: (1) the employee was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer was aware of the disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the disability.  It the plaintiff establishes these elements, the employer must prove that the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship.  The plaintiff lost her case because the courts found that she was not a qualified individual with a disability.  The ADA defines a qualified individual as one who can perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  As to the question of what are an employee's essential job functions, courts consider, among other factors, the employer's judgment and written job descriptions.  The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that the undisputed evidence demonstrated that it was impossible for the plaintiff to perform the essential duties of her job, even with accommodations, due to her physical limitations.