Employee failed to tie her accommodation requests to her disability

Because a county employee who served the public failed to tie her requests for a physical barrier separating her from the public with her disability—chronic fatigue syndrome—her ADA failure-to-accommodate claim could not be revived on appeal. Nor did she present any evidence that the county’s refusal to provide her with the requested accommodation resulted from race discrimination, ruled the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Background. A computer navigator at a county courthouse, whose job was to help pro se litigants deal with the judicial system, sued the county (representing herself) for race and disability discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to the county, finding any discrimination was attributable to state rather than county workers but that she had sued her county employer; it also found no actionable discrimination.

Employer liability. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit took issue with the district court’s initial rationale, pointing out that employers in fact must control the behavior of others in the workplace. Quoting itself in an earlier opinion, the Seventh Circuit said “liability is direct rather than derivative, it makes no difference whether the person whose acts are complained of is an employee, an independent contractor, or for that matter a customer.” It went on to explain: “If the district court’s approach were right, then organizations would be able to avoid their responsibilities by dividing authority among bureaus, divisions, or agencies. The people who made the decisions could not be liable, because they would not be ‘employers’; and the employers could not be liable, because they let someone else make the decisions. The federal laws concerning employment discrimination cannot be so easily evaded.”

No race discrimination. The employee’s job was to assist pro se litigants in the county’s “Legal Self-Help Center,” many of whom expected the “computer navigators” to write complaints or fill in forms. But as nonattorneys, they could only use their computers to find and print forms and instructions the pro se litigants would find useful. People occasionally became abusive and, in fact, the employee was once spat upon. She sought some type of physical barrier between herself and the public—a desk, a partition, the ability to lock the door when she left—but her requests were denied. Without something more (such as racial comments or racial connotations), there was no evidence this was race discrimination, the Seventh Circuit agreed.

No disability discrimination. Though the employee’s chronic fatigue syndrome was concededly a disability, she had no evidence that she had requested the physical barrier as an accommodation for her disability—because even though she did mention anxiety, she had not attempted to link her anxiety to her qualifying disability, although chronic fatigue syndrome can aggravate anxiety. Further, when she requested time off to deal with her chronic fatigue syndrome, it was granted—both when she provided medical documentation and when she did not. She neither argued in litigation nor had she presented medical evidence to her employer “demonstrating that a reasonable employer would understand every mention of an employee’s anxiety as a disability or understand, without medical knowledge, how anxiety and chronic fatigue syndrome are related.”

Pointing out that the two requests the employee expressly made on account of her disability both sought time off, and both requests were granted, the Seventh Circuit found the record did not show that she supported any other request (specifically, her request for some type of physical barrier) with the sort of medical evidence that the ADA contemplates tying her requested accommodation to a disabling condition. Accordingly, the appeals court affirmed summary judgment for the county.

SOURCE: Wells v. Winnebago County, Illinois, (CA-7), No. 15-1805, April 27, 2016.

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