Federal Court Rules the ADA Extends to an Employee's Difficulties Getting to Work

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court that is a step below the U.S. Supreme Court, has ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows an employee to sue her employer after the employer refused to accommodate her request for a shift change due to her partial blindness. The case is important because it is one of the first times that a high-level court has said that the ADA applies to an employee's difficulties getting to work, as opposed to an employee's difficulties once she has arrived at her place of employment.

Jeanette Colwell, a part-time cashier at a Rite Aid pharmacy, typically worked on weeknights from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.. In the summer of 2005, Ms. Colwell began to lose the vision in her left eye due to a retinal vein occlusion and glaucoma. She eventually became blind in that eye, and her doctor advised her to avoid driving at night because it was too dangerous. Ms. Colwell brought her supervisor a note from the doctor explaining the problem, and asked the supervisor to change her schedule so that she would always be driving to and from work during the day.

Ms. Colwell's supervisor refused to change her shift and Ms. Colwell eventually resigned and filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the ADA and age discrimination. A trial court threw the case out, finding that the ADA mandates that an employer accommodate only an employee's disability at work and that the Act has no application to an employee who has difficulties getting to work. Ms. Colwell appealed.

On appeal, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the trial court was wrong when it said that the ADA applied only to accommodations at work. In a strongly worded opinion, the court explained that "changing Colwell's working schedule to day shifts in order to alleviate her disability-related difficulties in getting to work is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates." The court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings, which will eventually allow Ms. Colwell to bring her case before a jury.

The Colwell case illustrates the difficulties faced by people with disabilities when they clearly want to work but are confronted by employers who don't believe that they have a responsibility to help their employees. In this case, a reasonable accommodation of Ms. Colwell's request for a shift change could have saved the company the costs and hassle of litigation, and, more importantly, could have saved Ms. Colwell's job.

To read the court's decision, click here.

Article Last Modified: 06/01/2010

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