This post was contributed by Adam L. Santucci, an Attorney in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC’s Labor & Employment Practice Group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act definition of “disability” was expanded by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, we told you to expect an increase in accommodation requests and disability discrimination claims. Many of you have experienced increased claims, and the courts are starting to feel your pain.

For example, a claustrophobic attorney has filed a claim against her former law firm alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The crux of the attorney’s claim is that the firm failed to accommodate her claustrophobia and anxiety. The facts of the case are interesting, and the eventual outcome could provide some helpful guidance to employers contemplating requests for accommodation.

The employee was previously assigned to one of the firm’s offices in Moosic, Pennsylvania. However, she requested and was granted permission to transfer to the firm’s Center City Philadelphia office. She was assigned an office on the 23rd floor.

Apparently, problems began on her first day at the Philadelphia office. According to her complaint, she began suffering from anxiety and claustrophobia immediately following her first elevator ride. [INSERT BIG CITY JOKE HERE]. She claimed that as a result of her anxiety at work, she was unable to eat or sleep.

The attorney allegedly sought accommodations from the firm as a result of her anxiety and claustrophobia, which she claims were denied. Under the ADA, covered employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, except when such accommodations would cause an undue hardship. The attorney claimed that the firm was aware of her disability and that it had denied her requests for accommodation, including at least two requests to transfer to other office locations. The attorney claimed that the firm’s failure to accommodate her ultimately led to her discharge.

The attorney’s claims are interesting because, according to press reports, she had been to the Philadelphia office previously and as noted, specifically requested the transfer! In addition, the firm argued that it did in fact provide the attorney accommodations (including the ability to work from home for a period of time). Nonetheless, the court concluded that the case would survive the firm’s motion to dismiss because the attorney had made the minimum showing necessary to proceed.

Certainly this does not mean that the attorney will succeed on her claim, and more interesting facts will probably come to light. While trying to keep the bad jokes to a minimum, this case will be interesting to watch for a number of reasons:

  • What happens when an employee’s own request triggers the need for an accommodation?
  • If the firm told her to take the stairs, would that be a form of reasonable accommodation?
  • If she could not work in the office away from windows, how could she work in another office under similar circumstances?
  • Will the courts in the Third Circuit rule that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation?
  • Is telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for an attorney?
  • Is an attorney who cannot ride an elevator or work in an office away from a window able to perform the essential functions of her job?

As requests for accommodation become more common, and employers are diving deeper into the interactive process, additional guidance from the courts on specific types of accommodation requests will prove helpful. The real question here is how far will employers need to go to be in compliance? Stay tuned.