Many reasonable accommodation cases are resolved in court but a court is not usually the defendant. But such was the case when a court reporter sued the Office of the Chief Judges of various Illinois circuit courts for failing to accommodate her incontinence.
In Gratzl v Office of the Chief Judges of the 12th, 18th, 19th and 22nd Judicial Circuits, decided on April 7, 2010, the plaintiff had suffered from incontinence since approximately 1991. When the OCJ hired her in 2001, they agreed in writing that she would work in the control room only, a position which was compatible with her medical condition. Five years later, the chief judge decided that, to evenly distribute the workload, all court reporters must rotate through all courtrooms, including the control room.
The plaintiff asked that she be allowed to continue working in the control room only as an accommodation. Her doctor told the court that she needed access to a restroom on a moment’s notice. In response, the court proposed that she not be assigned to any courtrooms in which a trial was scheduled or to juvenile courtrooms, which were farther from the restrooms, and that she use a “high sign” to signal the judge that she needed a break. Plaintiff rejected all of these offers and continued to request to work in the control room only, arguing that such an assignment was feasible because she had had it previously, that other courts have specialists assigned to the control room only, and that her using the “high sign” would be embarrassing.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the OCJ on plaintiff’s ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, holding that she was not a qualified individual with a disability because she was “unable to sit in the courtroom during proceedings without disrupting court” and that her “control room only” request was not a request for a reasonable accommodation. The court rejected the plaintiff’s “circular” argument that she is qualified for her current job because she was qualified for her previous job with different essential functions. The court said an employer need not maintain a position or structure that, for legitimate reasons, it no longer believes is appropriate and may change an employee’s essential functions.
This case illustrates numerous “reasonable accommodation” principles employers must master. Presented with a request for a reasonable accommodation, the court engaged appropriately in the “interactive dialogue” to explore options, and offered a series of accommodations which would have enabled plaintiff to perform her responsibilities despite her medical condition. A plaintiff who rejects such accommodations and merely insists on her preferred accommodation is not a qualified individual with a disability and loses the protection of the ADA.