Expensive Disability Accommodation Lesson

Caltrans in Nevada County learned the hard way that you cannot ignore an employee disability accommodation requests. More importantly, you can’t retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. An article in the Sacramento Bee provides many of the details. I’ve written several articles regarding the importance of proper accommodation policies and procedures in the workplace.

Employee Awarded $3million in Disability Accommodation Lawsuit

John Barrie claimed his supervisors harassed him and ignored his requests for accommodations related to his allergies. Mr. Barrie has severe reactions to certain smells, such as chemical cleaners and perfumes. Although Nevada County Caltrans accommodated Mr. Barrie for years, Barrie alleged supervisors started harassing him and denying the disability accommodations in 2010. Barrie allegedly sought help internally through various channels, but the harassment continued. The jury believed Mr. Barrie, and awarded him $3million for the retaliation and harassment related to his allergies.

Allergies Can Constitute a Disability

State and federal laws broadly define “disability.” In short, a disability is any medical condition–psychological or physiological–that impairs one or more major life functions. Severe allergies can impair major life functions such as breathing. Some people experience severe skin rashes, headaches, nausea and vertigo from allergic reactions.

Disability discrimination laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. Failing to provide reasonable accommodations, and in some instances failing to engage in the interactive process of determining what disability accommodations are appropriate, is a violation of the law.

From the pleadings, it appears Caltrans HR department tried to accommodate Mr. Barrie. A regional administrator affirmed his allergies in 2011, and wrote an order compelling workplace accommodations. Barrie alleged his supervisors ignored the order, and retaliated against Barrie by giving him job duties outside his normal scope and moving him to less convenient job sites.

Every Disability Accommodation Request is Serious

Supervisors oftentimes fail to recognize they must treat every disability accommodation request seriously. While HR may know the requirements, ensuring supervisors comply with the law can be difficult. In Barrie’s case, an HR note revealed that Barrie’s supervisors wanted to discipline Barrie for going to HR because he went outside the “chain of command.” I suspect this factored heavily in the juries $3million award. Employers cannot retaliate against employees for requesting accommodations or raising complaints in the workplace.

If you require a workplace accommodation, or if your employee requests an accommodation, talk with an attorney familiar with disability accommodation and discrimination issues.

Original article by Robert E. Nuddleman of Nuddleman Law Firm, P.C.

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