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ADA didn’t require transfer away from stressful co-worker, 9th Cir. says

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Dive Brief:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act did not require GlaxoSmithKline to transfer an employee away from her co-worker as an accommodation, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held Monday in Rough v. Glaxosmithkline, LLC.
  • The plaintiff and a co-worker had a stressful relationship that led to depression and anxiety for the plaintiff. She requested a transfer to a position in which she would have no contact with the co-worker, according to court documents. The employer initially ensured the employees worked opposite shifts but after the facility moved to a single-shift model, the accommodation was no longer reasonable, it concluded.
  • The employee took leave and eventually resigned. She then sued, alleging GSK failed to accommodate her disability. A district court dismissed her claim and on appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed. Even if a “no contact” accommodation could be reasonable in some instances, “the requested accommodation was not reasonable here.”

Dive Insight:

The ADA requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations as needed for workers or applicants with disabilities.

While guidance and case law on transfers away from co-workers is limited, stakeholders generally agree that the law doesn’t require reassignment to avoid a specific manager. A U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance explicitly states that “an employer does not have to provide an employee with a new supervisor as a reasonable accommodation.” Several courts have reached the same conclusion, with the 11th Circuit affirming that stance just last year.

Requests for transfers away from co-workers may be less common, and the 9th Circuit declined in Rough to decide whether such a request could ever be reasonable. The court was clear, however, that the plaintiff’s request was not reasonable in the context of her job because it would have required GSK to take drastic measures, such as returning to a two-shift schedule or building a separate facility. Additionally, the court said it was undisputed that all employees were expected to collaborate and that, given the small size of the facility, some interaction among employees was inevitable.

The law may require, however, that employers accommodate disabilities like depression and anxiety in other ways. Such adjustments could include flexible schedules, changes in managerial styles and more, according to the Job Accommodation Network, a U.S. Department of Labor service.

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