Vande Zande v. Wisconsin Dep't of Administration: Seventh Circuit Addresses Reasonable Accomodation for Employee with Ulcers

In Vande Zande v. Wisconsin Dep't of Administration, the Seventh Circuit addressed alleged violations of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court held that (1) a paraplegic plaintiff's ulcers were part of her disability and subject to reasonable accommodation, but (2) the employer was not required to allow her to work at home or provide a computer in her home so she could work without using sick leave.

In early 1990, Vande Zande (plaintiff) was hired as a program assistant by the Wisconsin Dep't of Administration (WDA). Vande Zande, who was paralyzed from the waist down, occasionally developed pressure ulcers which required her to stay at home for several weeks. She acknowledged that WDA made numerous accommodations relating to her disability which enabled her to perform her work. For example, they: (1) had bathrooms modified and provided ramps; (2) bought special adjustable furniture; (3) paid half the cost of a cot which she needed for daily personal care at work; (4) adjusted her schedule to accommodate her medical appointments; and (5) agreed to provide other specific accommodations she requested.

Vande Zande complained that WDA did not go far enough. She wished to work at home when pressure ulcers forced her to stay home and felt she could do so if WDA provided her with a computer. Her supervisor refused and told her that any hours not worked would have to come from sick leave or vacation. She was able to work all but 16.5 hours during that period, and took 16.5 hours of sick leave. As a result, she lost no income, but did lose sick leave which could have been carried forward. Her second complaint was that the sinks and counters in the kitchenettes of her workplace were too high. WDA would not lower the sinks and counters. Instead, they installed a shelf at an accessible level and requested that she use a nearby bathroom sink. Vande Zande sued WDA alleging disability discrimination under the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment for WDA, and Vande Zande appealed.

The Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA defines "discrimination" to include an employer's "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business." The court noted that the "reasonable accommodation" provision was borrowed from EEOC regulations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which applied to federal employers. The court noted that case law under the Rehabilitation Act was instructive for analyzing cases under the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit stated that the term "accommodation" means that an employer must be willing to consider making changes in its ordinary work rules, facilities, terms, and conditions in order to enable a disabled individual to work. Regarding "undue hardship" and "reasonability," the court noted that the cost should not be disproportionate to the benefit. The court stated that even a large employer that may not be able to plead "undue hardship" would not be required to expend enormous sums of money in order to bring about a trivial improvement for a disabled employee.

The court concluded that costs are reviewed at two points in the analysis. First, the employee must show that the accommodation is reasonable (i.e. effective and proportionate to costs). Second, the employer may prove that the costs are excessive in relation to the benefits of the accommodation or the employer's financial health.

The Seventh Circuit noted that the plaintiff's paralysis constituted a disability, and that an "intermittent impairment that is a characteristic manifestation of an admitted disability is a part of the underlying disability and hence a condition that the employer must reasonably accommodate." Thus, WDA had a duty to reasonably accommodate Vande Zande's ulcers.

The Seventh Circuit then addressed the accommodations made by WDA. The court noted that generally, an employer is not required to accommodate a disability by allowing the disabled worker to work without supervision at home. Here, the court noted that the employer went further than the law required; and therefore, it must not be punished by being deemed to have conceded the reasonableness of the accommodation. The court held that the accommodation provided to the plaintiff, allowing her to work at home, at full pay, subject only to a slight loss of sick leave, was reasonable as a matter of law. Further, the employer had no obligation to allow her to work at home.

Turning to the second claim, Vande Zande's contention that she was being discriminated against because she did not have facilities identical to fellow employees. The court observed that the cost to lower the sinks and counters on Vande Zande's floor was $150 and $2,000 throughout the building. The court also noted the proximity of the bathroom sink to the kitchenette. The court stated that an employer does not have a duty to expend even modest amounts of money to bring about identical working conditions between disabled and non-disabled employees. The court concluded that access to a particular sink is not a legal duty if access to an equivalent sink, conveniently located, is provided. The court affirmed summary judgment.

Vande Zande v. Wisconsin Dep't of Administration, 44 F.3d 538 (7th Cir. 1995).


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