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No Accommodation Required for an Employee Who Cannot Perform Essential Functions of the Job

In Conners v. Wilkie, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, determined that an employer, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), was not required to accommodate Conners, a licensed practical nurse (LPN), who could perform only minimal job duties after she was injured in an accident. The employee was out on an extended leave and, upon her return to work, provided her direct supervisor with a note outlining her restrictions.

Although the LPN’s job description included numerous essential functions, when the LPN returned to work, the supervisor allowed her to perform only the teaching and paperwork functions. Further, the supervisor failed to provide any of the employee’s information to the VA’s accommodation coordinator, who was ultimately responsible for determining whether an accommodation was necessary.

After approximately two years, upper administration became aware that the employee was not performing the vast majority of her job duties when they reviewed her performance evaluation. Her case was then reviewed by an accommodation coordinator, who began the interactive process. During that process, the employee was adamant that she continue working as an LPN but only perform teaching and paperwork assignments. The VA disagreed and determined she no longer was qualified to be an LPN. She declined to seek reassignment, which would have required a reevaluation of her qualifications, so the VA ultimately let her go. The employee sued the VA, alleging failure to accommodate.

The Seventh Circuit determined that the VA acted properly because an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act must be a qualified individual before the employer has a duty to make a reasonable accommodation. The employee’s physical limitations meant she could not stand or walk for sustained periods as was necessary to treat and observe patients, respond to medical emergencies, give immunizations, or manage the front desk, all essential functions of her job as an LPN. Importantly, the modifications the VA provided for approximately two years did not serve to make her a qualified individual with a disability, since she was still unable to perform the essential job functions. Thus, the court ruled, she was properly dismissed.

This case emphasizes the importance of having thorough job descriptions.

For questions about this decision and ADA accommodations, contact Ellen Rothenberg, Cindi DeCola, or any attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group.

Source:  Conners v. Wilkie, 984 F.3d 1255 (7th Cir. 2021)