Violating the Americans with Disabilities Act

Church terminates employee for refusing to work weekends to care for disabled daughter.

Key point 8-14.1. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.

A federal district court in Illinois ruled that a church did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by dismissing an employee who refused to work on weekends in order to be home with her disabled daughter. A church hired a receptionist (the "plaintiff"). Her job required that she work on weekends. Within a week of hiring her, the church learned that the plaintiff's daughter had mental disabilities and lived in a residential care facility. Since the plaintiff could only take her daughter home to visit on weekends, she asked the church to adjust her schedule to allow her to be home with her daughter. She claimed that the church failed to accommodate her, and required her to work on weekends in violation of federal and state law. The situation continued to deteriorate, with the plaintiff refusing to work on weekends despite the church's insistence that she do so. The church eventually terminated her employment, citing her "continued poor performance" and refusal to work weekends.

The plaintiff filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and later sued the church in federal court. The sole issue in the case was whether the church unlawfully discriminated against the plaintiff on account of her daughter's mental disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The church asked the court to dismiss the plaintiff's lawsuit.

The court noted that the ADA prohibits covered employers from "excluding or otherwise denying equal jobs or benefits to a qualified individual because" he or she has a relationship with a disabled person. This provision was enacted "to stop employers from refusing to hire a qualified person out of fear that she will, for example, miss work to care for a disabled child." However, the court noted that "firing an employee who violates "a neutral employer policy concerning attendance or tardiness," even to care for a disabled person, does not violate the ADA." That is, "there is no obligation to reasonably accommodate a nondisabled employee," and "employees are not entitled to (a) modified work schedule to allow them to care for a disabled family member."

The court concluded:

The church offers evidence that it terminated the plaintiff for nondiscriminatory reasons: poor performance and her unwillingness to alter her schedule. Under [existing law] she must refute each ground by offering evidence that it is a mere pretext …. The court finds that the pretext evidence proffered here is insufficient to protect the plaintiff from summary judgment.

We are sympathetic to the position in which plaintiff found herself. Her legitimate need to be home with her daughter conflicted with the church's need to have both members of their full-time staff available to work some weekend hours. However, that does not mean that the church's decision to dismiss the plaintiff violated the ADA. United Methodist Church, 2011 WL 5515521 (N.D. Ill. 2011).

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