The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently affirmed the dismissal of a plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim even though the underlying facts were overly sympathetic to the plaintiff. Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, No. 16-2451 (1st Cir., April 30, 2018). The decision reinforces the importance of maintaining detailed job descriptions to counter an employee’s failure to accommodate claim and also supports an employer’s decision to provide a temporary accommodation without fear of later claiming that accommodation is ultimately unreasonable.
“No matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.” This is from the Circuit Court’s opinion affirming the trial court’s ruling that plaintiff Victor Sepulveda-Vargas (“Sepulveda”) was not a “qualified individual” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Sepulveda sued his employer, Caribbean Restaurants, LLC (Caribbean), an operator of Burger King franchises throughout Puerto Rico, for failing to make appropriate accommodations for him following an on-the-job assault. Specifically, Sepulveda was attacked at gunpoint while making a bank deposit for Caribbean resulting in his suffering from PTSD and depression. As an accommodation for his conditions, Sepulveda requested a fixed work schedule, instead of the rotating schedule normally required of Caribbean’s Assistant Managers. Caribbean acquiesced at first, but after some time required Sepulveda to return to the established rotating schedule. Sepulveda ultimately resigned and filed suit claiming Caribbean failed to reasonably accommodate him by permanently accommodating him with a fixed work schedule. The ADA exists to protect “qualified individuals” from discrimination in the workplace. A qualified individual is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. The District Court granted Caribbean’s motion for summary judgment holding that Sepulveda was not a “qualified individual.”
The First Circuit affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that working rotating shifts was in fact an essential function of the assistant manager job. It was a requirement that was advertised in the initial job description and one that was in Caribbean’s judgment essential to the job. Rotating shifts ensured equal distribution of work among managerial staff. Accommodating Sepulveda would have resulted in inconveniencing the other assistant managers. Finally, Caribbean’s initial temporary acquiescence to Sepulveda’s request did “not mean that it conceded that rotating shifts was a ‘non-essential’ function.” This, according to the court, would “punish employers for doing more than the ADA requires.”
The First Circuit decision is certainly a victory for employers on multiple fronts (although not the focus of this post, the court also dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliation and hostile work environment claims for lack of evidence). The decision also reinforces the importance of maintaining detailed and accurate job descriptions which are essential in opposing failure to accommodate claims.
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