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The Clayton County School District in Atlanta, Georgia employed Edith Hill as a bus driver. During the school year 2009-2010 Hill was assigned a non-air-conditioned bus for special needs students. The temperatures inside the bus rose above 100 degrees and Hill found she was experiencing serious difficulty in breathing. She filed an “Employee Request for Reasonable Accommodation” on August 11, 2009 stating that extreme heat impaired her ability to breathe.
Hill attached two doctors’ notes, one from a pulmonologist who said she had an airway-related physical impairment that limited her breathing abilities. If she were provided with an air-conditioned bus she could do the job, according to the pulmonologist.
On August 13, 2009, the School District placed Hill on unpaid leave while it considered her request. On August 28, 2009, the School District sent Hill a letter denying her request because all air-conditioned buses had already been assigned to other drivers. The letter did not mention that the District was in the process of obtaining more air-conditioned buses.
There was a dispute at trial whether the School District offered Hill one of these new air-conditioned buses. Hill said it never happened; several employees of the School District said that the offer was made. Hill remained out of work through 2009 and into early 2010. The School District terminated her employment on March 2, 2010. Hill then sued under the ADA for discrimination.
The District Court ruled in favor of the School District and dismissed Hill’s law suit, but the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in favor of Hill on the disability discrimination issue. The Court first noted that there was conflicting evidence on whether the School Board ever made an offer to Hill about using one of the new air-conditioned buses. None of the School Board’s witnesses actually recalled making the offer to Hill. The Court added:
Even assuming the School District did make such an offer, there is still a dispute as to whether making Hill wait two months was reasonable. In its motion for summary judgment, the School District argued that providing an air-conditioned bus any earlier would have constituted an undue hardship, but does not provide sufficient evidence of what the hardship would be. All the School District said was that it would have had to upset its seniority-sensitive bus-allocation process.
The Court reviewed prior case law where employers had made employees wait a few months before making an offer of reasonable accommodation. It said that in all of the prior cases, the employer paid the employee during the waiting period before a decision was made on the offer or allowed the employee to work during the waiting period. The Court said, “Here, by contrast, two months was more than enough time for the School District to overcome any administrative hurdles in providing Hill with an air-conditioned bus.”
What this means is that Hill has an opportunity to present her case before a jury. The lesson in a case like this is that employers must act promptly when it comes to requests for reasonable accommodation. In this case it was hard for the School Board to argue that Hill had no right to the accommodation request. Hill had in years past driven an air-conditioned bus. The case also shows the importance of making a written offer of accommodation. Throughout the hearing process the parties fought over the issue of whether an offer of accommodation had been made, even though this could have easily been resolved by documenting this in a written offer letter. The case can be found atHill v. Clayton Sch. Dist., No.13-14951, (11th Cir. 2015).
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.