18 Apr When Disabilities Compete
Gentlemen, start your engines. The city of Indianapolis is facing a lawsuit arising from competing disability claims. In one corner, a person using a service dog to help them with their disability (while the typical scenario is the seeing-eye dog, apparently this is a paprika-sniffing dog). In the other, a person with a dog allergy.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (along, likely, with the Indiana state law equivalent), in a nutshell, requires employers to not discriminate against employees in the terms and conditions of their employment on the basis of a disability, so long as the employee can perform the essention functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodation. Here is where it gets sticky. Let’s first assume both employees in question are disabled within the meaning of the statute, which they likely are as they suffer from physical impairments (exposure to specific allergens) that substantially limit a major life activity (e.g. anaphylaxis preventing breathing in severe reactions). Using a service dog or preventing dogs in the workplace are both likely reasonable accommodations. Problem is, these are mutually exclusive accommodations.
Of course, there is an escape clause: employers are not required to make an accommodation, even if reasonable, if it otherwise would impose an undue hardship. Here, if the dog-allergy employee (DAE) is valuable, the employer could state that it would be an undue hardship to permit dogs as it would cause the loss of services of the DAE. It is an affirmative defense that the employer would have to prove, though it may be conflated with the reasonableness of the paprika-allergy employee’s (PAE’s) request. Also, employers are not required to provide the most reasonable accommodations, or the best reasonable accommodations, but rather one of the list of possible reasonable accommodations.
In the choice between DAE and PAE, the employer is free to choose DAE. However, the inquiry does not end there. The city apparently offered her only her job w/o dog or unpaid leave, neither of which are reasonable. What about a transfer of position or location that could accommodate both? Cities are usually sufficiently spread out to permit such an accommodation, so long as there is no conflict with civil service laws or collective bargaining agreements. So, PAE may yet have a case; in the meantime, she should be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Also, who knew? Paprika is everywhere!