Nelson v. Ryan: Federal Court Reviews Case of Reasonable Accomodation for Blind Employee

In Nelson v. Ryan, the district court held that the defendant reasonably accommodated the plaintiff, a blind employee, by crediting him with sick and personal leave, in advance, in order to attend extended guide dog training sessions. This case is under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act).

In 1981, Nelson, who was legally blind, began working for the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (CBVH). Nelson used a seeing eye dog for "meaningful mobility," which allowed him to go outside the office to counsel blind clients in their homes. CBVH accommodated Nelson by allowing him to work with clients who lived close to public transportation. In 1990, Nelson's first guide dog was put to sleep. In January 1990, Nelson went to New Jersey to attend a two-week training session with a new dog. Nelson used accrued sick and personal leave to attend this session. Unfortunately, the new dog was a mismatch, was returned, and Nelson had to attend another training session. Prior to the second session, Nelson, who had run out of accrued leave, asked his supervisor for paid leave. Based on CBVH policy, the requested accommodation was denied, but Nelson was credited with future leave against which the days to attend the sessions would be applied.

Nelson claimed he should have been granted paid leave. He noted that other blind employees received paid training on CBVH-owned computers. Nelson sued CBVH and several other defendants under the Act. Both sides moved for summary judgment.

The district court noted that to prevail under the Act, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he is "handicapped person;" (2) he is "otherwise qualified" to participate in the activity or enjoy in its benefits; (3) he is excluded from such participation or enjoyment solely because of the handicap; and (4) the program receives federal assistance. The court found that the third element was the only element in dispute. The court noted that the plaintiff has the initial burden to show some form of reasonable accommodation was possible to allow him to keep the position. After this is established, the defendant may show that no reasonable accommodation was possible, or that it was provided. The court added that an accommodation is "reasonable" when "any employment barrier is surmountable without substantial modification in the requirements of the position or undue administrative or financial burden." Further, the ultimate question is not whether a plaintiff's actual request for an accommodation is allowed, but whether the accommodation offered to the plaintiff was reasonable.

The district court found the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) helpful to its analysis. The ADA's legislative history indicated that items such as hearing aids, glasses, and seeing eye dogs are generally items that an employer is not required to provide. The ADA regulations provided that a seeing eye dog is a personal assistance device which an employer should allow an employee to use at work. From these sources, the court concluded that because an employer is not required to supply a guide dog to a blind employee, there is no basis on which to require an employer to supply paid leave to a blind employee for purposes of training his dog, even if that employee uses the dog for some work purposes. The court then found that by allowing Nelson to use accrued and future leave, the defendants had reasonably accommodated Nelson, as he was not required to incur a salary loss during the time in which he attended training.

Nelson v. Ryan, 860 F. Supp. 76 (W.D.N.Y. 1994).