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Katherina Swank worked for CareSource Management Group (hereinafter CareSource) as a Registered Nurse (RN). CareSource provides managed healthcare services to Medicaid recipients. Her work involved case manager duties by telephone until CareSource initiated a new approach in 2011 to delivering managed care services to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which mandated that CareSource employees meet face-to-face with certain high risk members of the community on at least a quarterly basis.
This face-to-face requirement posed a problem for Swank because she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She had intermittent difficulty with walking, lifting heavy items, and driving. She had a weakened immune system and was susceptible to illness. Because of these medical issues, CareSource had allowed Swank to begin working from home in 2009. When management contacted Swank in 2011 about the change in requiring face-to-face visits with members, Swank said that she had concerns about this, in particular having to drive a great deal as well as the impact on her autoimmune condition.
Swank sent a letter on November 14, 2011 to the Senior Vice President of Health Services stating that the new position “would be hazardous considering her current health condition.” She elaborated that contact with high risk patients would be detrimental to her health. She met with management and stressed that long distance driving would also be a problem. CareSource suggested that Swank make an accommodation request.
Swank filled out an application for an accommodation and stated that she was “unable to tolerate being exposed to changes in weather conditions” and “unable to sit/stand for long periods of time.” Her request was to be permitted to continue to work in an office setting. Her physician weighed in by saying that Swank would have “difficulty” performing some of the job duties of the new CMHR job position. Her doctor also said that during acute flare-ups of her rheumatoid arthritis, her medical condition would preclude her from traveling to and from work and from being at work.
Ten more conversations took place between the parties with no real progress. Ultimately Swank admitted that she could not perform the essential functions of the new CMHR position, and CareSource advised that it had no other position for her. The company then terminated her employment.
Swank sued under the ADA and contended that the company failed to make reasonable accommodation for her disability. The district court ruled for CareSource and the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Swank’s case. The Court noted as follows:
There was evidence that Swank could not perform her job duties at all during flare-ups of her rheumatoid arthritis.
The Court had a right to rely on statements by Swank’s doctor that she was likely to have acute flare-ups even though Swank disagreed with her own doctor on this point
Driving was an essential function of the CMHR position because driving was included in the “Work Environment/Physical Requirements” section of the job description, even if it was not mentioned in the CMHR heading as an essential job function.
Making face-to-face visits with high risk patients was an essential job function
Swank also argued that the company should have considered reassigning her to a telephonic position in Dayton or Cleveland. The Court noted that at the time she raised this issue, there were no such positions available. Further, this would not have addressed Swank’s restrictions against long distance driving. Lastly, one of the Cleveland positions would have required a promotion for Swank, and the Court noted that this is never required of an employer under the ADA.
The Court rejected the argument that Swank made a reasonable accommodation request:
“Swank failed to propose a reasonable accommodation that would have addressed her stated driving limitations. Swank contends that she proposed a reasonable accommodation because she ‘sought to be assigned members in the geographic area of her home in order to limit driving long distances.’ However, Swank testified that even if she were assigned members closer to her home, she still might have to sit in the car for long periods of time due to traffic or bad weather and still might experience flare-ups due to changes in the weather. Swank therefore agreed that assigning her members closer to her home would not adequately address her concerns. Accordingly, because Swank did not propose a reasonable accommodation to CareSource that would address her stated limitations, her interactive-process claim fails as a matter of law.”
This case shows how important it is for an employer to ask an employee to outline in writing any health restrictions and make a specific request for accommodation. Here the plaintiff boxed herself in by listing so many restrictions that it would be nearly impossible for the company to find a job which would meet all the restrictions. When plaintiff tried to walk some of the restrictions back, contending that she was not really all that restricted, the employer correctly held her to her written representations and held her doctor to them as well. The case also shows how important it is to list the essential functions on a job description. It is worth the time to get the job description right, which CareSource did here in stating that driving and traveling were essential functions.
The case can be found at Katherina Swank v. CareSource Management Group Corporation, 32 AD Cases 1731 (6th Cir. 2016).
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 email@example.com.