Thursday, December 15, 2022

Reasonable accommodations are for actual disabilities, not unhinged conspiracies

If I've learned one thing from my 25+ years of practicing law it's that when a court describes your arguments as a "rambling and hyperbolic tirade," your goose is cooked. 

This is the story of Meltzer v. The Trial Court of the Commonwealth, by John Bello, Administrator

The case stems from one attorney's objection to wearing a masking inside a courthouse during the Covid-19 pandemic. He objected not on a basis of disability from which suffered, but on the allegation that wearing a mask caused him to become disabled. Despite no legal obligation that I can see to accommodate his non-disability, the court nevertheless offered him the alternatives of appearing by videoconference or taking short, unmasked breaks outside of the courthouse during in-person proceedings. 

He refused both and instead sued the court for allegedly violating his rights under the ADA. Despite pleading claims under the ADA, the complaint failed to identify the specific disability from which the plaintiff claimed to have suffered, and instead relied on ramblings comparing the court's mask requirement to waterboarding while invoking the United Nations Convention Against Torture, charging the court of promoting "mass hysteria," and accusing the court of using Zoom to transform itself into a "non-democratic … uninviting human wasteland."

Needless to say, the trial court had little difficulty dismissing this lawsuit. (If my 25+ years of practicing law has taught me anything else, it's that this is not the last we will hear of this lawsuit.) 

This is not an employment case under Title I of the ADA; the lawyer brought his claim under Title II of the ADA, which applies to state/local governments. Nevertheless, Meltzer offers several teachable moments for employers. I'm going to focus on two.

1.) The ADA's reasonable accommodation obligations only apply to individuals with protected disabilities. An employee telling you, "I'm disabled," isn't enough. He or she must disclose a specific physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Otherwise, an employer's reasonable accommodation obligation never triggers. 

2.) The ADA does not require an employer to offer a disabled employee the most reasonable accommodation, or the employee's preferred accommodation. Instead, it only requires the employer to offer a reasonable accommodation, one which enables the employee to perform all of the essential functions of his or her job. Once an employer offers reasonable accommodations it's game over, unless the employee can demonstrate how they do not enable him or her to perform the essential functions of his or her job. The fact that the offered accommodation isn't that for which the employee asked or prefers is irrelevant, as long as it's reasonable.