Make no mistake about it: ADA compliance can be challenging. This is especially true when it comes to providing reasonable accommodation. Not uncommonly, managers wanting to do the right thing actually provide more than the law requires. Although well-intentioned, this practice often leads to conflict if more generous accommodations are later scaled back. Thankfully, a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals supports the notion that employers should not be penalized for going beyond their legal obligations.
Paul Boyle joined the City of Pell City in March 2001 as a Heavy Equipment Operator in the Street Department. An on-the-job injury that same year left him disabled, and he could no longer perform the duties of his position. The Street Department Superintendent initially accommodated Boyle by letting him do office work. In 2005, Boyle and the Superintendent reached a written agreement, under which Boyle would perform the duties of the Street Department Foreman for two years, but at his prior Heavy Equipment Operator pay rate. During this time, the actual Foreman voluntarily worked as a mechanic but retained his Foreman title and pay.
As it turned out, this arrangement continued unchanged until June 2012, when the Superintendent retired. The new Superintendent promptly removed Boyle from the Foreman position and assigned him to work inventory, over Boyle’s protests that the physical demands of the inventory job made it difficult for him to work. When Boyle asked to be returned to the Foreman position, the Superintendent insisted that since the original Foreman retained the Foreman title and pay, he – not Boyle – should perform the duties of the job.
Boyle ultimately took disability retirement. He then filed suit, claiming among other matters that the City had violated the Rehabilitation Act because the Superintendent’s refusal to return him to the Foreman position denied him a reasonable accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment for the City.
The appellate court affirmed, holding that Boyle had failed to identify any reasonable accommodation the City could have provided. Like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act does not require an employer to create a new position for a disabled employee or to reassign the employee to another job if no vacant position is available. Boyle presented no evidence that the Foreman position was ever vacant during the time he performed Foreman duties. The City was not obligated to create a second Foreman position. Nor did it have any responsibility to “bump” the actual Foreman from the job to generate a vacancy for Boyle, or to promote Boyle as an accommodation for his disability.
Most importantly, the mere fact that the City had accommodated Boyle for years by allowing him to perform Foreman duties did not, in the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion, mean his removal from those duties was a failure to accommodate. This accommodation was not required by law. Therefore, removing it would not run afoul of the Rehabilitation Act’s accommodation requirements.
Sometimes good deeds do go unpunished.