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Reasonable accommodation has its limits as is noted in the case of Belasco v. Warrensville Heights City School District, 2015U.S. App. LEXIS 21493 (6th Cir. 2015). Norma Belasco, a long-time teacher, began to have serious health issues in 2007, starting with renal failure with an eventual kidney transplant in 2013. She also had heart surgery in 2010 and suffered from shortness of breath, balance problems and fatigue, sometimes requiring the use of a walker.
Over time her class became more and more uncontrolled with students fighting frequently and the Principal having to intervene fairly regularly. The school security guard testified in a deposition that she had to respond to Belasco’s classroom four or five times a day. Students would be out of their seats, playing loud music, and sometimes laying on the floor. One student would occasionally draw lesson plans for other students to work on.
Belasco conceded in a deposition that she needed assistance but maintained that the assistance she needed was related to her disabilities.
Q. So when you requested assistance, you were requesting assistance to deal with their behaviors, not assistance to perform your duties as a result of the limitations that you experienced?
A. Well, they were related, obviously.
Q. How were they related?
A. As I said, my balance and things like that were not perfect, so I was a little afraid that the children would hurt each other, but also could knock me down, which has happened with teachers.
The School District was also concerned that Belasco was not implementing a program called “Action 100,” which was a Reading Challenge program. Belasco was entering false data into the database, claiming she was instructed to do so. She was absent from work frequently, missing 26 days in one semester, and was frequently late for school.
The School District arranged a fitness-for-duty examination which Belasco failed to pass. She challenged the results of the fitness exam and set up her own examination, which she also failed. Both fitness exams noted that Belasco could not ensure safety of students because that required quick reactions on the part of the teacher. Belasco had poor balance and shortness of breath with minimal tasks. Following these examinations, the District conducted a hearing in which Belasco requested the assignment to her of a teaching aide and the use of a walker.
The District refused to hire a teaching aide but did agree to allow the use of a walker if Belasco’s doctor could certify that using the walker would enable Belasco to perform the essential functions of her job. After further hearings, the District terminated Belasco’s employment. Belasco sued alleging that she was discriminated against based on her disabilities.
The federal court found in favor of the District, and Belasco appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Court found that Belasco failed to show that she could safely perform the essential functions of her job, even if she was disabled. The Court added that “Belasco does not explain why her failure to pass the relevant aspects of the fitness-for-duty tests cannot independently support the examiners’ conclusions that she was unable to perform essential functions of her job – namely, supervising students, ensuring their safety, and responding in emergencies.”
With regard to her requests for reasonable accommodations, the Court said that Belasco failed to produce a medical certification explaining how the use of a walker would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job. Further, the Court said that the ADA does not require an employer to hire another person to help someone with a disability perform the essential job functions. In this case the union collective bargaining agreement prohibited hiring part-time educational aides without the express consent of both the prospective aide and the union. The union refused to provide its consent. Lastly, the Court said that Belasco’s request to shift unruly students to another classroom was unreasonable because the District should not have to reassign essential job functions to another employee.
The case illustrates a number of important principles: first, that requests for accommodations must be linked to helping the employee perform the essential job functions. Moreover, certain requests for accommodation are unreasonable on their face, particularly those requests that would require other employees to do part of the disabled employee’s job.
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.