chemical allergyConsider this scenario. Cathy works for Clean As a Whistle, Inc. as a janitor. Cathy recently developed a sensitivity to all cleaning chemicals. Initially, Cathy brought in a doctor’s note limiting her to two hours of chemical exposure per eight hour work day. Clean As a Whistle agreed to limit her exposure to two hours. When that limitation failed to abate Cathy’s symptoms, her doctor modified the restriction to “no exposure to cleaning solutions.”

Clean As a Whistle tried to find a solution for Cathy, but ultimately determined there was no way to accommodate her because the chemicals were airborne so merely working in the building resulted in exposure, and providing a respirator was too expensive. After she was terminated, Cathy sued.

Did Clean As a Whistle violate the ADA?

A.  Yes, because Clean As a Whistle did not engage in the interactive process.

B.  No, because Cathy did not have a disability.

C.  Yes, because Clean As a Whistle should have provided a respirator.

D.  No, because Cathy was not “qualified” to do her job based on the doctor’s restriction.

The correct answer is D. Cathy’s doctor’s note did her in. This fact pattern came from Horn v. Knight Facilities Mgmt, a case from the typically employee-friendly Sixth Circuit. In ruling for the employer, the court found that the doctor’s note requiring “no exposure to cleaning solutions” made accommodation impossible, because there was no evidence that a respirator would have prevented all exposure, and Cathy could not perform the essential functions of her job.

A is incorrect because Clean As a Whistle did engage in the interactive process, in initially accommodating the limitation, then in trying to come up with a solution.

B is incorrect, because respiratory issues — even allergies — can be a disability.

C is incorrect because there was no evidence the respirator would allow Cathy to perform her job, and providing a respirator to all janitors could have posed an undue hardship on Clean As a Whistle.

HR Takeaway: Dealing with disability issues can be one of the most difficult tasks an HR professional faces in the workplace. The interactive process is absolutely critical to fulfilling an employer’s obligations under the ADAAA, but remember, if it is ultimately determined that there is no reasonable accommodation that will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his/her job, the employee is not “qualified,” and the employer may move toward termination. Because of the many risks to employers, however, it is always wise to seek legal counsel prior to making that ultimate determination.