Interestingly, Premier had identified that something was wrong with Ms. Schirnhofer. Its employee’s use of the term “Sybil” to refer to her should have served as a clue that the matter required different treatment. Not only is it compelling evidence that Premier “regarded” Ms. Schirnhofer as disabled, thus entitling her to the protections of the ADA in any event; it is compelling evidence that Premier did not take the condition seriously. A mistake, as the jury verdict illustrates, but not an uncommon one. Mental health conditions often present in the workplace as performance or interpersonal issues. Employers should exercise caution when addressing these issues, and avoid the use of flippant language. Further, the ADA provides a framework to address those issues that employers can use to manage risk. A simple request to the employee to identify ways in which the employer can help acts as a start for the reasonable accommodation process. And, under these facts, an admonishment to the employees using the inappropriate language to reference her mental health condition may have provided an affirmative defense.
Here, Premier was given the opportunity to manage this risk, but did not take it. But for the want of two extra ten-minute breaks a day, this verdict might not have occurred. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the workplace from the way things are customarily done that provides an equal employment opportunity to an individual with a disability. EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The employer does not need to provide the accommodation if it presents an undue hardship, such as a significant expense or a significant impact on the operation of the business. Id. The requested accommodation was two additional ten-minute breaks each day. The Summary Judgment opinion is silent on what, if any, undue hardship this would impose on Premier. Premier’s argument was that the request was not reasonable where Ms. Schirnhofer already received two ten-minute breaks and a lunch break each day. Premier’s refusal to provide this accommodation is difficult to understand in this fact pattern: it cost very little, except twenty minutes of productivity from an admittedly good worker; it may have prevented the outburst that led to the termination; and it certainly would have prevented this lawsuit. Notably, Ms. Schirnhofer’s immediate supervisor had informally permitted her to take these breaks for a period of time, and Premier ended this informal accommodation.
Premier has defenses. Its argument regarding the reasonableness of the requested accommodation may have merit, and Ms. Schirnhofer’s rejection of the offer to move her work area may defeat the claim. Premier further argued that Ms. Schirnhofer’s condition did not impact a major life activity. Perhaps those defenses will win the day on appeal, but the jury has rendered its verdict, and the burden to overturn it is high.
The jury’s verdict reflects a practical calculus: a simple accommodation may have allowed this employee to continue her employment. The jury may likewise have considered the insensitive language used to discuss Ms. Schirnhofer. The lesson of the verdict in this case, even if it does not survive appeal, is that the analysis of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation is a fact-driven, practical one, left to the jury. Turner v. Hershey Chocolate U.S., 440 F.3d 604, 614 (3d Cir. 2006). Practitioners should consider these practical, and not just technical, considerations in advising employers regarding reasonable accommodations.