Changing Work Shifts Can Be Required as Reasonable Accommodation for Employee’s Disability

On April 8, 2010, in the case of Colwell v. Rite Aid Corporation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that employers can be required to change an employee’s work shift to accommodate the employee’s disability. The Third Circuit is the federal appellate court that covers several states, including New Jersey.

The Facts of Colwell v. Rite Aid Corporation

Jeanette Colwell worked as a cashier at a Rite Aid store. On some days she worked the day shift (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and on other days she worked the night shift (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.).

In the summer of 2005, Ms. Colwell was diagnosed with retinal vein occlusion and glaucoma in her left eye. She eventually went blind in her left eye.

Although Ms. Colwell was able to do her job, her disability made it difficult for her to drive at night, and there was no public transportation available after 6 p.m. In September 2005, she told her supervisor, Susan Chapman, that her partial blindness made it dangerous for her to drive to work at night. Ms. Chapman refused to change her shift, claiming it would not be fair to her coworkers.

In late September or early October 2005, Ms. Colwell gave Ms. Chapman a doctor’s note saying she should not drive at night. Ms. Chapman still refused to allow Ms. Colwell to replace her night shifts with day shifts.

With rides from her family, Ms. Colwell was able to work her night shifts. However, she told Ms. Chapman she could not depend on other people for rides all the time. Working night shifts was also a hardship for Ms. Colwell’s family. Nonetheless, Ms. Chapman continued to schedule her for both day and night shifts.

In October 2005, Ms. Colwell spoke to her union representative, Ken Karasek, about her need to change her shifts. Mr. Karasek was unable to convince Ms. Chapman to switch Ms. Colwell’s night shifts for day shifts. However, he scheduled a meeting between himself, Ms. Colwell, and Ms. Chapman to discuss the issue further. Mr. Karasek did not to show up to the meeting. Although Mr. Karasek offered to reschedule the meeting, Ms. Colwell was fed up, and submitted a resignation letter on October 12, 2005.

Ms. Colwell then sued, claiming disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, she alleged that Rite Aid failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation for her disability in violation of the ADA. She also claimed Rite Aid constructively discharged her in violation of both the ADA and the ADEA.

Failure to Accommodate Disability

The Third Circuit found that Ms. Colwell’s disability discrimination claim should be decided by a jury. An employer discriminates against an employee in violation of the ADA if it fails to reasonably accommodate an employee’s known physical or mental limitations, unless the company can prove that providing the necessary accommodation would impose an undue hardship on its business.

Depending on the circumstances, an employer might be required to make the workplace accessible to disabled employees as a reasonable accommodation. Other examples of reasonable accommodations can include restructuring a disabled employee’s job, providing her a part-time or modified work schedules, reassigning her to a vacant job, or obtaining different equipment or change existing equipment.

The Court further explained that the ADA requires employers to engage in an “interactive process” with disabled employees. The purpose of this interactive process is to decide whether the company can provide a reasonable accommodation to allow the disabled employee to perform her job.

An employer that fails to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee violates the ADA if:

  1. the employer knew about her disability;
  2. the employee requested an accommodation or assistance for her disability;
  3. the employer did not make a good faith effort to help the employee to seek an accommodation; and
  4. the company could have provided the employee a reasonable accommodation if it had acted in good faith.

When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation she does not need to use any “magic words.” Rather, she just has to make it clear she needs assistance for her disability. In other words, if the employer has enough information to know the employee has a disability and needs an accommodation, then it needs to ask the employee how it can help her. At that point, both the employer and the employee must work together to search for an appropriate reasonable accommodation.

Applying this law, the Third Circuit ruled that the ADA can require a company to accommodate an employee’s disability which limits her ability to get to work. That includes allowing an employee to change shifts to accommodate her disability if doing so is reasonable under the circumstances.

In the end, the Third Circuit found that, if a jury believes Ms. Colwell version of the facts, then it could find that Rite Aid violated the ADA. Specifically, a jury can find that as soon as Ms. Colwell asked Ms. Chapman to change her schedule because her disability prevented her from driving at nite, Rite Aid should have talked to her about how it could accommodate her disability. As a result, the Court sent the case back to the trial court so a jury can decide whether Rite Aid discriminated against Ms. Colwell in violation of the ADA.