MicroPact Blog

Avoiding Liabilities: Understanding the Rehabilitation Act

Why education and training are essential in helping to ensure “Reasonable Accommodation”

Carl Moore's avatar

By: Carl Moore

December 3, 2012 | Fair Practice

A recent case, Schmidt v. Solis (Civil Action No. 07-2216 (JMF), DCDC, 9-18-2012), is a prime example of how a supervisor’s lack of understanding of the reasonable accommodation process can create problems for the agency.

The Situation: As far back as 2002, an employee had been granted a reasonable accommodation to work from home without coming into the office due to a very rare and very debilitating condition. In 2004, her supervisor left and a replacement supervisor came in.

The problems started when the new supervisor decided to challenge the reasonable accommodation that the previous supervisor had put in place. It quickly became apparent that the new supervisor did not accept the employee’s disability even though the agency’s doctor had reviewed all the medical documentation and had concurred with the employee’s doctor. The new supervisor began requesting confidential medical files that he had no right or competence to review. He began to impose restrictions on the employee’s work schedule that violated the original accommodation. He also began to make demands on the employee in terms of coming in to the office that even the agency doctor advised him were impossible for the employee to meet. For more than a year, this supervisor battled the employee constantly with efforts to change the employee’s accommodation, even though during this period the employee was receiving better than “Fully Successful” performance ratings.

The Decision: The actions by this supervisor resulted in the employee seeking legal action against the agency. The employee raised four counts of violations of the Rehabilitation Act, and the court found in her favor on all four counts. In the decision, the federal district court judge stated that the new supervisor’s “continued yet unwarranted skepticism” of the employee’s disability, and the resulting delay in issuing the employee a workable accommodation, “constituted bad faith with regards to the interactive accommodation process.” The judge went on to say that there was “no legitimate reason for [the supervisor] to question or limit the terms of [the employee’s] reasonable accommodation that had been in place for two years when he became supervisor.”  The judge also found the “treatment of [the employee] to be insincere and that [the supervisor] was motivated by a vindictive desire to retaliate against her for asserting her rights under the Rehabilitation Act.”  To accentuate this point, the judge noted that he would have awarded compensatory damages in excess of $1 million, were it not for the statutory cap that limits the award to $300,000 for the case.

The Bottom Line: With a supervisor who understood the reasonable accommodation requirements, and who listened to the medical staff assisting him in the evaluation of the request, a workable solution had been created and a valuable employee was retained at full employment. When a supervisor came in who did not understand the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act, who did not give deference to the medical professionals working for the agency, and who believed his own biases and prejudices about the employee’s medical condition, it cost the agency dearly in terms of lost employee trust, expensive litigation, and a large dollar payout in compensatory and other monetary damages.

This case stands for the proposition that having a supervisor in place who has not been adequately trained in the meaning and application of the Rehabilitation Act can result in an expensive ending to the story.

About the Author

Carl D Moore, Esq. was a senior consultant with NewPoint Strategies and a contributing author to this blog until his passing in 2013. He was also the author of TRUST: Short-Circuit the Hardwiring! – a book about EEO law and building trusting workplace relationships in order to avoid complaints, grievances, and law suits.