Western District Court of Kentucky
No. 3:03cv-644-s, 2007 U.S. Dist. Lexis 82815
November 6, 2007
Keywords: employment, facility access, federal employees compensation act (feca), legal concepts, modified position, Rehabilitation Act, state & local government
Facts of the Case
In 1989, Ms. Peggy Gantner was employed by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”) as an Automated Markup Clerk. In the course of her employment, Ms. Gantner suffered a back injury and a carpal tunnel injury to her wrist. In light of these injuries, the Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (“The Office”) agreed to make every reasonable effort to accommodate Ms. Gantner and place her in a position within her medical restrictions.
The Federal Employees Compensation Act (“Compensation Act”) is a program administered by The Office that provides payment of workers’ compensation benefits to civilian officers and employees of the U.S. government. Under the Compensation Act, The Office must determine if a limited-duty job is “suitable work” for a federal employee with a compensable job-related injury and is then required to provide the modified position as an accommodation. An employee who accepts a modified position is entitled to receive compensation benefits, while an employee who refuses to accept a modified position is not entitled to receive compensation benefits unless she can show just cause for the refusal.
The Office determined that Ms. Gantner qualified under the Compensation Act and notified USPS that it was required to accommodate Ms. Gantner according to her medical restrictions. In March 1996, the USPS created the Window Clerk Modified position (“modified position”) for Ms. Gantner. She began work in this position in June 1996.
After a month and a half in the modified position, Ms. Gantner stopped coming to work. She claimed both a recurrence of her carpal tunnel injury and a failure on the part of the USPS to provide her with the modified furnishings that would have allowed her to fully perform the functions of the modified position. In September of 1996, The Office notified Ms. Gantner that she was not justified in leaving the modified position, and for purposes of the Compensation Act, The Office viewed her as having “abandoned suitable employment.” In light of this, The Office terminated Ms. Gantner’s workers compensation benefits.
Between July 1996 and January of 1999, Ms. Gantner negotiated with the USPS for her return to work. Ms. Gantner requested that she be permitted to return to the modified position but was told that the modified position no longer existed. Instead, the USPS offered Ms. Gantner her original job as an Automated Markup Clerk. Ms. Gantner refused this position as it did not reasonably accommodate her disabilities and, in May 2000, took disability retirement.
Ms. Gantner has since passed away and her estate filed a claim against the USPS on her behalf, claiming that by denying Ms. Gantner the opportunity to return to work at the modified position, the USPS failed to reasonably accommodate her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. Although Title I of the ADA does not apply to federal agencies (e.g., the USPS), the court continued to refer to Ms. Gantner’s claim under both the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. A claim under the Rehabilitation Act is the appropriate course of action for this claim against a federal agency. The employment discrimination analysis on the basis of disability is the same for these two Acts. For the purposes of this brief, we refer to the claim under the Rehabilitation Act.
Issue of the Case
- Whether the Window Clerk Modified position was a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act and, if so, whether the USPS’s denial of this position to Ms. Gantner was a failure to provide reasonable accommodation in violation of the Act.
Argument & Analysis
1. Ms. Gantner’s estate argued that USPS was required to accommodate Ms. Gantner’s disability under the Rehabilitation Act. It further argued that the USPS had an obligation to “reasonably accommodate” Ms. Gantner by reinstating Ms. Gantner into the modified position.
The USPS accepted that it had an obligation to reasonably accommodate Ms. Gantner, but disagreed that the modified position was a reasonable accommodation. It argued that the modified position was not a “vacant, funded position,” as required under the Rehabilitation Act in order to be considered a reasonable accommodation. Rather, the USPS stated that it created the modified position as a new job for Ms. Gantner in accordance with its obligations under the Compensation Act.
1. The court found that the requirements of the Compensation Act differed from the requirements of the Rehabilitation Act in ways that were vital to the outcome of this case.
The Rehabilitation Act requires that employers reasonably modify the job duties of employees with disabilities, and that modifications may include job reassignment if alternative positions are reasonably available. The Court noted that the Rehabilitation Act does not require an employer to create a position not already in existence.
2. The court further held that the modified position was created solely to satisfy USPS’s obligations under the Compensation Act, and that once Ms. Gantner was determined to have unjustifiably abandoned the position, the position was no longer funded by the Compensation Act and ceased to exist.
Ms. Gantner therefore was unable to show that the modified position was a currently available and funded position at the USPS at the time she requested it as a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act. Thus, USPS did not violate the Rehabilitation Act when it refused Ms. Gantner’s request for the modified position.
Policy & Practice
Reasonably Available Alternative Positions
The USPS offered Ms. Gantner the Window Clerk Modified position in light of her work related injuries. The record indicates that this position was a modification of her original Automated Window Clerk position and that USPS did not experience any unreasonable hardship in creating this position for her. Yet, the court found the position was not “reasonably available” as a Rehabilitation Act accommodation because it did not technically exist at the time Ms. Gantner requested it.
Both the Rehabilitation Act and the Compensation Act can apply to federal employees with disabilities, and can require the employer to provide accommodations. Unlike the Rehabilitation Act, the Compensation Act can require the employer to create a new position or modified position for the employee as an accommodation. However, this case indicates that an accommodation provided under the Compensation Act does not qualify as a reasonable accommodation for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act.
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.