ergo chair via Kare Products FlickrConsider this scenario:

Carmen Parada worked for Banco Industrial de Venezuela in New York as a credit analyst, a largely sedentary job that involved organizing credit letter applications, ensuring that certain documents complied with various standards, and issuing credit letters. In 2007, she fell on the sidewalk and suffered a spinal injury in her lower back. As a result, the employee was directed by her doctor to avoid “prolonged sitting” and to stand after 10 or 15 minutes of sitting. She borrowed a colleague’s ergonomic office chair temporarily, and was able to sit using that chair without the need for standing breaks. The employee asked her employer (a bank) multiple times for a permanent ergonomic chair as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). However, she never received the chair and was ultimately terminated.

Which of the following statements is correct?

A. The bank may deny the employee’s request for the ergonomic chair as a reasonable accommodation under ADA, since she is not precluded from sitting at all times.

B. The bank must grant the employee’s request for breaks to allow her to stand after 10-15 minutes of sitting as a reasonable accommodation under ADA but is not required to provide the chair at the employer’s expense.

C. The bank must grant the employee’s request to either stand periodically or use an ergonomic chair, but not both, and the employee has to pay for her own chair.

D. The bank must grant the employee’s request and provide the chair at the employer’s expense, if the employee can show that she is a qualified individual with a disability and the chair will allow her to perform the essential functions of her job.

The correct answer is “D.”  In Parada v. Banco Industrial de Venezuela, C.A., a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, .the employee filed discrimination and retaliation claims against her employer under the ADA as well as a number of other claims under other federal, state and local laws. The primary issue in the case involved sitting — which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, tasked with implementing regulations for the ADA, has identified as a “major life activity” protected under the ADA — and whether the employee’s inability to sit for a prolonged time constitutes a protected disability for which a reasonable accommodation by the employer is required.

The lower district court had granted summary judgment in favor of the bank, holding that Parada’s inability to sit for a prolonged period of time could not constitute a disability under the ADA as a matter of law, since the major life activity of sitting is substantially limiting “only if the plaintiff’s impairment precludes [her] from sitting at all, not if the plaintiff’s impairment merely makes it more difficult to sit.” In other words, the court held that unless the employee could show that she was unable to sit at all, she was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

However, on appeal, the Second Circuit rejected that ruling and held that impairments that limit an individual’s ability to sit for long periods of time do not categorically fail to qualify as a disability under the ADA. The appellate court noted that a disability under the ADA is a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits a major life activity, and that an impairment substantially limits a major life activity if the individual is significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which she can perform the activity.

Applying this test to the facts of the case, the court concluded that the inability to sit for a prolonged period of time may well be a protected disability under the ADA depending upon the totality of the circumstances. “We certainly have never required that a plaintiff show that she is unable to sit at all. If a plaintiff offers evidence that she cannot sit for a prolonged period of time, she may well be disabled under the ADA, depending on her specific factual circumstances.” The Second Circuit remanded the case to the trial court to determine if there is a genuine dispute of fact as to whether Parada’s inability to sit for a prolonged period of time constitutes a substantial limitation of a major life activity, and to address any remaining arguments advanced by the Bank in its summary judgment motion.

HR Take-away: The Parada decision illustrates that, for employers, a protected disability under ADA continues to be somewhat of a moving target, as more and more employee impairments are being regarded as protected disabilities under ADA, requiring reasonable accommodations by employers. Businesses covered by ADA therefore need to pay close attention whenever an employee asks for an accommodation.

Photo Courtesy of Kare_Products on Flickr