Employee Preferences Irrelevant to ADA Accommodation

Laws protecting against the discrimination of those with disabilities in the workplace exist within federal, state, and often even local legal systems. One requirement common in anti-discrimination laws is the obligation for employers to seek reasonable accommodation for those workers with a disability. Until recently, however, it was uncertain whether an employer might be relieved from pursuing some forms of reasonable accommodation where the disabled employee refuses some forms of accommodation on account of their own personal preferences regarding their work and working environment.

This very issue was recently addressed. A federal district court in Pennsylvania recently held, in Mathew v. Cardone Industries, Inc. that reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") is determined by objective factors regardless of the personal preferences of the employee. Mathew had been employed by Cardone Industries for almost 10 years. During employment, Mathew injured his back while moving some auto parts; returned to work as a clerk; transferred back to handling and shipping auto parts; and again injured his back, and missed more than three months of work. When he was ready to return to work, the parts shipping job was no longer available. Cardone put together a clerical position consisting of job functions Mathew had performed during his first assignment as a clerk. The newly created position, however, was on a shift which began work at 5:30 a.m. Mathew refused assignment to the position because the shift started at that early hour.

Accommodation Not Unreasonable

The court granted summary judgment for the employer and dismissed Mathew's ADA lawsuit. The court held that the fact that Mathew had always worked on a later shift provided no evidence the employer's accommodation was not reasonable. Mathew was obviously able to perform the elements of the new position as evidenced by the fact that he had performed them in the past. The fact that Mathew had started work for almost 10 years at a later start time raised no issue of fact upon which Mathew could base his ADA claim. As the court noted, Mathew had provided no evidence that going to work at 5:30 a.m., as opposed to a later hour, would render him unable to do the same job he had performed on a later shift.

The broader lesson of the case lies in the court's virtual disregard for the employee's personal preferences. Only the objective facts dealing with the essential elements of the job and the employee's ability to perform them were given any weight as the court judged the reasonableness of the accommodation. Employers should not be overly distracted by subjective preferences as they address what might constitute reasonable ADA accommodations and disabled employees should be aware that if they refuse the reasonable accommodation their employer offers they may lose a subsequent ADA lawsuit. Of course, if the facts were different here the outcome might have been entirely different. If, for example, late shift work were offered and the worker was previously a day-shift worker, or if the worker were unable to perform the elements of the new task, they might prevail in their subsequent ADA claim.