Know The Law: Accommodating a Disabled Employee

April 13, 2015
Q: Our receptionist is out of work due to a back injury. He wants to return to work, but his doctor ordered him not to sit for more than thirty minutes at a time. Instead of asking to stand at his desk, he applied for the available office manager position within our company. He has only been out of college for one year and does not have any managerial experience. Can he sue us if we don’t give him the job?

A: The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, As Amended, prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified handicapped individual on the basis of disability. Under the Act, this is someone with a disability who can perform the essential functions of a position, either with or without reasonable accommodation.

The first inquiry here is whether the receptionist’s back injury substantially limits his ability to perform at work such that he may be considered disabled and entitled to protection under the ADA.  If so, then the next question is whether he can perform the essential functions of his position. The employer’s perspective of those functions will be considered, as well as written job descriptions, and functions performed by prior receptionists.  
If he can’t perform the essential functions, this leads to the third question of whether a reasonable accommodation may enable him to do so. Both the employer and the employee are responsible for engaging in a discussion about what accommodations may best suit the employee, and whether the accommodations are feasible. An accommodation may include reassignment to a vacant position, but the employee must have the requisite skills, education, and experience in order to be reassigned. An accommodation that presents an undue burden for the employer will not be considered reasonable. Here, modifying the receptionist’s office equipment, such as by providing a standing desk, would likely be a reasonable accommodation.
You should discuss with the receptionist the options for accommodation. If the receptionist declines the standing desk and continues to request reassignment to the office manager position, his qualifications as a recent graduate with no management training, skills, or experience may lead to a conclusion that he is unqualified for that position. If he is not qualified, then you would likely not be liable if you did not reassign him. An employer is not always required to provide the requested accommodation – only what is reasonable.
Dianne Ricardo can be reached at
Know the Law is a bi-weekly column sponsored by The McLane Law Firm.
We invite your questions of business law. Questions and ideas for future columns should be addressed to: McLane Law Firm, P.O. Box 888, Manchester, NH 03101 or emailed to The McLane Law Firm provides general legal information, not legal advice. We recommend that you consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your particular situation.