Recall the deaf applicant for a lifeguard position who was the subject of our post here. Most memorable there was the comment by the employer’s doctor to the applicant and his mom that “[h]e’s deaf. He can’t be a lifeguard.” The court there resuscitated the lifeguard’s ADA claim.
Now comes a deaf applicant for a plasma center technician (PCT) position. A PCT monitors the blood donor area and process, which includes responding to audible machine alarms, monitoring patients and communicating with them as needed. On rare occasions, blood donors have significant adverse reactions. The plaintiff communicates primarily through lip reading.
After receiving the documentation from a post-offer medical exam, the employer withdrew the offer due to “safety” reasons. The employer had concluded that the applicant would be unable to hear the machines’ audible alarms and could not safely monitor donors because she would not be able to perceive the donor’s need for attention when her back was turned to the donor.
The plaintiff had requested that the employer add “visual or vibrating alerts to the plasmapheresis machines” so that she could see the alarms and to install call buttons so that donors could call her. The employer had denied those requests.
The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that the applicant was not qualified for the position because she could not perform the essential functions of the PCT job. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court. Osborne v. Baxter Healthcare Corporation d/b/a Biolife Plasma Services, L.P. (10th Cir. August 24, 2015).
The appeals court said a jury should decide whether the employer’s providing the plaintiff’s requested accommodations would have been an undue hardship. The court noted that the fact that the employer would need to contact the machine’s vendor did not establish that the modifications were costly or difficult.
Also, the court held that a jury should decide whether the plaintiff would present a direct threat of harm due to her inability to handle the few donors annually who have significant adverse reactions. The court noted that these situations are “highly improbable and not always serious,” and the record did not establish that plaintiff would be unable to handle them.