ADA Does Not Allow Employee to Choose Accommodation

John GarnerCompliance, Legislative Updates, Resources

The structure of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and reasonable accommodation has been clarified by Swanson v. Flossmoor, a recent case decided by the 7th Circuit.  The ADA requires a covered employer to provide an eligible employee with a disability a reasonable accommodation allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  However, the reasonable accommodation is not necessarily the one that the employee suggests or prefers. The law does not require an employer to provide an otherwise reasonable accommodation if it is unsuitable to the employer’s operation.

Mark Swanson, a police detective, resigned from the police department of the Village of Flossmoor, Illinois.  He suffered two strokes, six weeks apart, the second of which left him unable to perform his job as a detective.  Swanson claims that the Village failed to reasonably accommodate him—in violation of the ADA—upon his return to work from his first stroke by not permitting him to work exclusively at a desk.

When Swanson suffered his first stroke on July 31, 2009, he took a leave of absence pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act until August 19, 2009.  Swanson returned to work with a note from his doctor, which read: “part-time work suggested until patient seen by Neurologist on 9-18-09.”  To heed his doctor’s advice, Swanson began using two days of his accrued medical leave each week, enabling him to receive a full paycheck while only working three-day weeks.  He requested a “light duty” position, but the police force continued to have him doing his normal job duties with reduced hours.

Swanson continued to use his accrued medical leave to work a reduced schedule—a routine that satisfied his doctor’s recommendation until September 30, when Swanson experienced another stroke.  Swanson’s second stroke rendered him unable to work as a detective or patrol officer, and so Swanson’s doctor excused him from work until further notice.  By November 17, Swanson’s status had not changed.  He submitted paperwork certifying as much and requesting FMLA leave retroactively to September 30.  The Village approved Swanson’s request, and he continued to use his paid medical leave to cover his absence.

On December 16, Swanson’s doctor released him back to work without restrictions.  Before actually returning to his job, however, Swanson suffered another medical episode, which prompted his doctor to rescind his prior release and prohibit Swanson from resuming work.  After further consultation with his physician, Swanson resigned five days later.  His December 21 resignation letter expressed his disappointment that he was “simply physically unable to return to [his] duties with the department.”  It further stated that “due to residual physical and neurological issues related to [his] July, 2009 stroke [he was] unable to resume [his] duties as a Police Officer/Detective with the department.”

Swanson sued the Village, alleging a number of things, including that the Village failed to make reasonable accommodations for him when he returned to work, following his first stroke, on August 19, 2009.  Regarding Swanson’s ADA claim, the district court concluded that Swanson simply did not demonstrate that the Village failed to reasonably accommodate his disability.  To the contrary, the Village permitted him to use two days of medical leave each week to work the part-time schedule suggested by his doctor.

Yet, as the Village emphasized, Swanson’s doctor’s note did not recommend “light duty”; it suggested that he work “part-time.”  And Swanson did just that.

Moreover, even if “light duty” would have been Swanson’s preferred accommodation, the ADA does not entitle a disabled employee to the accommodation of his choice.  Rather, the law entitles him to a reasonable accommodation in view of his limitations and his employer’s needs.  Accordingly, permitting an employee to use paid leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Village and the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

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