Hairdressing, wheelchairs, and reasonable accommodations

Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care VII, LLC, No. 13-3661 (7th Cir. Oct. 16, 2014).

Debra Kauffman was a hairdresser at a nursing home. She spent most of her time cutting hair, but on two days out of the week she would wheel disabled residents out of their rooms into the nursing home. 

Kauffman developed a prolapsed bladder and underwent surgery to fix it. Afterward, the doctor restricted her—perhaps permanently; it’s not clear—from pushing wheelchairs. She asked her boss if he could assign that part of her job to somebody else. He refused. 

In response, Kauffman quit and then sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the ADA, it is unlawful to refuse a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability. Kauffman says that she has a disability and was refused a reasonable accommodation.

It’s clear, says Judge Posner, that Kauffman has a disability. The only question is whether she was asking for a “reasonable accommodation.” He lambastes the district court judge for resolving genuine factual disputes that should have gone to a jury. Kauffman, he says, has made a good case that her wheeling duties can be reassigned to somebody else as a reasonable accommodation because they weren’t an “essential part” of her job. The wheeling duties did not take up very much of Kauffman’s time—potentially less than two hours out of a 35-hour work week. Judge Posner does some back-of-the-envelope math to show that reassigning those duties to some other employee might not be very hard on the employer. In sum, a trial is required to determine whether Kauffman’s requested accommodation would be reasonable.

Judge Manion concurs in the result, but argues that courts can’t just look at how much time somebody spends on a task in order to determine whether that task is an essential part of a job.