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Employer Not Required To Accommodate Disability Unrelated to Work Performance

Joan Unrein lived sixty miles from Colorado Plains Medical for the approximately twenty years she worked for them as a Clinical Dietitian. This distance did not pose a problem until she became legally blind, making it impossible for her to drive to work on her own. She was able to continue performing her job duties on-site with the help of magnifying equipment provided by CPM.

 Unrein asked CPM for a flexible work schedule because of her challenges with finding rides to work. The Medical Center responded with a proposed compromise: she would be required to work 32 hours per week, and the majority of that work time had to be on-site. The hospital also required her to communicate any schedule changes in advance. Unrein and CPM tried the accommodation for 15 months, but Unrein could not establish a regular set schedule and communicate it to her supervisor. The hospital said it received complaints about her not being present, and it contributed to lower patient satisfaction scores. After Unrein went on medical leave for seven months with no return date (for a reason unrelated to her vision disability), the hospital terminated her employment.

Unrein brought her failure to accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The circuit court found Unrein’s requested accommodation, an entirely flexible schedule, unreasonable as a matter of law and common sense. The court stated her transportation barrier was a problem outside the workplace and unrelated to an essential job function. An employer’s obligation to provide accommodation is not absolute, it is limited to reasonable accommodations, according to the court. Because transportation was not an essential function of her position, the hospital need not accommodate it. She could move closer. Physical presence in the hospital on a set schedule was an essential job function of her Clinical Dietitian position.