Refusal To Try Proposed Accommodation Can Be Fatal To An Employee’s Disability Discrimination Claim

June 5, 2013

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that an employee who refuses to try a reasonable accommodation of a disability cannot maintain a discrimination suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

In Yovtcheva v. City of Philadelphia Water Department, No. 12-3089 (3d Cir. May 7, 2013), the plaintiff, Silvia Yovtcheva, was an analytical chemist with the Philadelphia Water Department’s Bureau of Laboratory Services.  Ms. Yovtcheva subsequently informed the Department that she was experiencing health problems as a result of her work with a particular chemical.  The Department advised Ms. Yovtcheva that she could wear a full-face respirator for protection.  Ms. Yovtcheva was fitted for the respirator but only used it a few times because it made her claustrophobic and caused her to experience a panic attack.  The Department then offered Ms. Yovtcheva a partial-face respirator but she refused to try it.  Ms. Yovtcheva subsequently filed suit alleging, among other things, that the Department had discriminated against her due to her disability.  The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of the Department.

To maintain a claim for discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that: 1) he or she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; 2) he or she is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation by the employer and 3) he or she has suffered an adverse employment decision as a result of the discrimination.  Under the ADA, an individual may refuse to accept an accommodation which is offered by the employer.  However, if that individual rejects a reasonable accommodation which is necessary for that individual to perform the essential functions of a job, that individual is not a qualified individual for purposes of the ADA.

The Third Circuit assumed that the full-face respirator was not a reasonable accommodation due to the problems that Ms. Yovtcheva experienced when she attempted to use it.  However, Ms. Yovtcheva was also offered a partial-face respirator and, according to the court, there was unchallenged expert testimony that it would have addressed the health problems she was experiencing.  As a result, the Third Circuit determined that the partial-face respirator was a reasonable accommodation and that because Ms. Yovtcheva refused to try the device, she was not a qualified individual and could not maintain a discrimination claim under the ADA.

Employers should not interpret Yovtcheva to mean that they can offer a disabled employee any type of accommodation.  Rather, the offered accommodation must be a reasonable one before an employee’s rejection of the accommodation will prevent him or her from maintaining a claim.  This decision should provide employers with some level of comfort that if they negotiate in good faith with employees, and the employees refuse to similarly cooperate in good faith, that they will not be subjected to liability under the ADA.

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