Washington Court Addresses When an Accommodation is Reasonable

The Washington Court of Appeals recently addressed what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation.  Frisino v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1.   Ms. Frisino, a teacher, took a leave of absence because of her sensitivity to airborne irritants in the classroom.  The parties agreed Ms. Frisino had a disability, and the district took several steps to accommodate her — such as remediating the classroom to remove the mold.

The Court of Appeals held that an issue of fact existed concerning whether the district’s efforts constituted a “reasonable accommodation” because of evidence suggesting those efforts were not effective in removing the airborne irritants.   For example, Ms. Frisino testified that she visited the “clean” classroom and thought airborne mold spores might not be contained by plastic she saw taped over a hole where ceiling tiles had been removed.

The Court of Appeals  reasoned that the term “reasonable” accommodation means an accommodation that is effective in removing the workplace barrier that is preventing the employee from returning to work.

The United States Supreme Court takes a different view.  In US Air v. Barnett, the Supreme Court held that, under the ADA, the tern “accommodation,” not “reasonable,” encompasses whether a workplace modification is effective.   The term “reasonable,” the Supreme Court reasoned means well . . .  “reasonable.”   So much for clarification.

The primary significance of the how the terms are defined is what the employee and employer have to prove if a lawsuit is filed.

From a practical standpoint, Frisino provides provides little clarification for employers on what exactly is a “reasonable accommodation.”  But whatever its exact meaning, the case makes clear that courts will carefully scrutinize not only whether an employer took steps to try to accommodate an employee with a disability,  but whether those steps were actually effective  in removing workplace barriers.

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