In an important case with significant implications for employers and employees, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled April 8, 2010 that, under certain circumstances, the Americans With Disabilities Act can obligate an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work (if reasonable).
The case, Colwell v. Rite Aid Corp., No. 08-4675 involved an employee who was hired in April 2005 as a part-time clerk, Coldwell, at one of Rite-Aid’s stores. Her schedule varied but she generally worked the 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. shift or the 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. shift. During the summer 0f 2005, she was diagnosed with retinal vein occlusion and glaucoma in her left eye and she later lost vision in her left eye. As a result, she could no longer drive at night. Because she lived in an area without public transportation or taxis, Colwell had no reliable way to get to work for the evening shift. She asked to be assigned only to the day shifts but her supervisor refused, saying that it “wouldn’t be fair” to other employees. Colwell provided her supervisor with a doctor’s note as proof that she could not drive at night. Again, her supervisor declined Colwell’s request to be assigned only to day shifts. Colwell had to rely on family members to transport her to and from work on the days she was scheduled to work at night. Coldwell eventually submitted a letter of resignation.
Coldwell filed suit in federal district court in Pennsylvania. The trial court ruled in favor of Rite-Aid (on the employer's motion for summary judgment prior to trial), finding that the ADA was designed to cover barriers to an employee’s ability to work that exist inside the workplace, not difficulties over which the employer has no control, such as whether an employee can get to or from work.
On appeal, the question before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was “whether a shift-change request can be considered a reasonable accommodation for an employee who cannot drive at night” because of a disability. The Third Circuit held that under certain circumstances the ADA can obligate an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work, if reasonable. According to the Court, “[o]ne such circumstance is when the requested accommodation is a change to a workplace condition that is entirely within an employer’s control and that would allow the employee to get to work and perform her job.” The Court noted that a change in shifts could be that kind of accommodation.
Significantly, the court distinguished this from an employee’s request for assistance in getting to work. For example, according to the Court, an employer would not have a duty to provide an employee with transportation to or from work. But an employer does have a duty, where reasonable, to accommodate an employee by changing the times that the employee is required to be at work. Thus the Third Circuit overruled the district court’s grant of judgment in favor or Rite-Aid and remanded the case back to the federal district court for a jury trial.