Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in Disabilty Discrimination Lawsuit

On February 6, 2020, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer in a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the Plaintiff, a manager of a federal government youth-wellness facility, under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA").  Fox v. Adams and Associates, et al., 2020 IL App (1st) 182470 (February 6, 2020).  The Plaintiff was involved in an automobile accident that caused injuries requiring prolonged leaves of absence.  The trial court found: (1) that the Plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability; (2) that there was no genuine issue of material fact that she could not perform the essential functions of her job due to her disability; and (3) the employer terminated her employment due to her medical inability to work.  On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that she was a qualified individual with a disability because her request for a multi-month leave of absence was not unreasonable, and that she did not request an indefinite amount of time for her leave of absence.

If a plaintiff shows that an accommodation is reasonable on its face, the defendant employer must demonstrate special circumstances and undue hardship in the particular circumstances.  The reasonable accommodation concept is flexible, but a reasonable accommodation is one that allows a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of her employment position.  The Plaintiff alleged that the defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her disability in violation of the ADA and IHRA.  The ADA provides that no covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability on the basis of disability in regard to the discharge of employees.  To survive summary judgment on her ADA claim, the Plaintiff was required to show that: (1) she is disabled; (2) she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the adverse job action was caused by her disability.  A qualified individual is someone who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of her employment position.  The IHRA similarly prohibits discrimination in employment against individuals with physical or mental disabilities.  To survive summary judgment on her IHRA claim, the Plaintiff was required to demonstrate that: (1) she has a disability within the meaning of the IHRA; (2) an adverse job action was taken against her because of her disability; and (3) her disability is unrelated to her ability to perform the functions of her job.  A plaintiff must have the ability to perform the duties of her job with or without reasonable accommodation; otherwise, she is not protected under the ADA or the IHRA.  A plaintiff who cannot, by reason of a physical condition, perform the duties of her job, even with an accommodation, is not disabled under the IHRA.

Under the ADA, disability discrimination includes an employer's failure to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship to the operation of its business.  A reasonable accommodation may include, among other things, job restructuring, part-time work, or modified work schedules, or reassignment to a vacant position.  It was undisputed that the Plaintiff was not able to return to work in any capacity for at least three months and, even then, there was no indication that as of the date of her termination, she could work full-time.  Thus, when her employment was terminated, she was not capable of working at all, and she would have required an additional leave of about two more months before she would be assessed to determine whether she could return to work.  Because the Plaintiff's need for extended medical leave did not permit her to perform her essential job functions, she was not a qualified individual at the time of her termination.  Therefore, she fell outside the protections of the ADA.

Moreover, even if she were a qualified individual under the ADA, her claim would still fail because her requested accommodation was unreasonable as a matter of law.  An accommodation is unreasonable if it imposes significant financial or administrative costs, or it fundamentally alters the nature of the program or service.  The Plaintiff's requested accommodation was unreasonable because she asked for an indefinite period of leave.  She also failed to present evidence showing that the requested leave was likely to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job upon her return.  An employer's duty to accommodate applies when an employee asserts or claims that she would have performed the essential functions of her job if given reasonable accommodation.  However, the ADA does not require an employer to give an employee an indefinite leave of absence.  Thus, the appellate court concluded that the Plaintiff failed to meet her burden to present a factual basis that her requested leave of absence was a reasonable accommodation.

Because she could not demonstrate that she was an otherwise qualified individual who could perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation, the trial court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendant on the Plaintiff's disability discrimination claims under the ADA and the IHRA.