One of the most important provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is that employers cannot discriminate against qualified employees who happen to have disabilities. One of the main ways of preventing discrimination is requiring employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for certain mental or physical limitations that employees face. Installing ramps for wheelchair-bound employees or Braille signs for blind workers are some of the obvious accommodations that employers might be required to make. However – as with the police officer who argued that the Gresham city police department should not have fired him after his drunk driving incident, but should have made some attempt to accommodate for his alcoholism – the definition of “reasonable accommodation” is very much in debate.
The Oregonian reports that reasonable accommodation is at the heart of the controversy surrounding a Portland city employee who wants a fragrance-free workplace. Julee Reynolds, who works for the city of Portland’s Bureau of Maintenance, claims that she suffers from a condition called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). According to Reynolds, being surrounded by co-workers who wear scented products, including perfume or hand lotion, can trigger “respiratory distress, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and anaphylaxis,” a severe allergic reaction that can lead to death.
In June of 2011, Reynolds had such a severe reaction to her co-workers’ use of fragrances that she had to be hospitalized. She claims that her doctor cleared her to return to work, but without any exposure to such fragrances. In an attempt to get the city to make reasonable accommodations for her MCS, Reynolds met with Portland’s safety officer, Richard Harrington, to see if together they could find a way to limit her exposure to the scents that trigger her allergic reaction. Reynolds’ formal suggestions included: enforcing Portland’s fragrance-free policy, rearranging the office to keep her away from allergens, placing signs in her workspace noting that it is a ‘fragrance-free’ area, installing a fan to remove the fragrances from Reynolds’ area and having her co-workers and other employees attend an awareness training on the effects of scented products on her chemical sensitivity disorder.
In late March of 2012, after the city refused to put Reynolds’ suggestions into practice, a lawyer for Disability Rights Oregon contacted the city on her behalf with a formal request for accommodation. When the city of Portland still took no action to accommodate Reynolds’ disability, she decided to pursue legal action. In mid-May of this year, she filed suit against the city in the United States District Court in Portland, alleging both common law negligence and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Since the lawsuit is only at its inception, it remains to be seen whether the court will find that Portland’s refusal to act on Reynolds’ suggestions was in fact an improper failure to provide her with reasonable accommodation for her disability. It will be interesting to see where the courts decide to draw the line on these issues; both employers and disabled employees should watch this litigation carefully to understand how the courts will define their responsibilities and rights, respectively.
If you believe your employer has failed to make proper reasonable accommodation for your disability, please contact one of our attorneys, who can help you vigorously pursue your case.