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Court Notes Limits to Accommodations That Employer Must Provide

Jessica Ehlers worked for the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service ("Boynton"). She worked in an administrative position that required her to answer customer questions and resolve their issues, either by phone, in person, or through email. While working for Boynton, Ehlers was diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome ("TMJ"), which causes popping, clicking, muscular dysfunction, and pain. In 2016, Ehlers requested and received six weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act leave and accommodation for her condition, including a reduced schedule. Ehlers also asked Boynton to reduce the need for her to speak through more frequent breaks and reassignment. Boynton denied the requests because her job required extensive interaction with customers and could not be changed to accommodate the restrictions she requested. The University offered her the option of discussing a transfer outside of Boynton, but she declined because she would have to quit her position. Ehlers requested other accommodations; these requests were fairly extensive because of her health issues. The University offered again to connect her with a job counselor to discuss other possible jobs. Ehlers did identify some positions, some of which became filled while others could not accommodate her needs. During this process, she requested and received additional leave and reduced hours. When she sought an extension, the University fired her because she could not work a full schedule, which was an essential function of her job.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals considered Ehler’s claims that the University violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ehlers bore the burden of demonstrating she could perform the “essential functions” of her position, with or without accommodation. In addition, Ehler had to demonstrate that reasonable accommodations were possible. The appellate court noted, "In certain circumstances, reassignment to a vacant position can be a reasonable accommodation." However, it is an "accommodation of last resort." The parties agreed Ehlers suffered from a disability and had the requisite qualifications for her administrative position. They also agreed she could not perform the essential functions of her position without the accommodation of reassignment. Ehlers did not provide the court with information regarding the other jobs to show that she was qualified. She did, however, have a list of 11 requested accommodations. Ehlers did not establish to the court that she could perform other positions. The court said, "no reasonable jury could find that the University did not make good-faith efforts to make reasonable accommodations."