A nurse’s request to use a cane while working in a hospital’s behavioral health unit is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal district court in Florida has ruled. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., No. 8:13-cv-2723-T-30TGW (M.D. Fl. Feb. 18, 2015).
Leokadia Bryk worked as a nurse in St. Joseph’s Hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit. The BHU is an in-patient psychiatric unit for patients who present an imminent danger to themselves or others. Bryk had been using a cane in the BHU since returning to work after hip-replacement surgery in October 2009. In October 2011, Bryk began working under a different supervisor who asked her to get clearance from the Employee Health Department to use the cane while working in the BHU.
Based on the patient population in the BHU, the Hospital informed Bryk that she could not continue working in the BHU with a cane and gave her one month to transfer to another position. When Bryk was not hired for any position for which she applied by the end of the one-month period, the Hospital terminated her employment. The EEOC filed suit on Bryk’s behalf alleging the Hospital violated the ADA when it failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment.
The court found Bryk’s gait dysfunction due to her hip replacement established she is a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA. The court also found that being able to perform “takedowns and emergency codes” on patients were essential functions of Bryk’s position, even if those situations arose only infrequently or typically were performed by others. Citing federal appeals court precedent, the court found that to prevail, the EEOC must demonstrate that Bryk could perform the essential functions of her job safely while using a cane. Based on evidence that patients could take the cane from her and use it as a weapon, the court concluded, as a matter of law, that Bryk’s request to use a cane in the BHU was not a reasonable accommodation.
The EEOC also argued the Hospital violated the ADA by failing to reassign Bryk to a vacant position. The court found jury issues existed as to whether it would have been a reasonable accommodation to reassign Bryk to two of the three positions for which she had applied. The court found that reassignment to the third position was unreasonable as a matter of law because Bryk applied for it after her employment was terminated.
The court’s recognition that a job function can be essential, even if it is performed only infrequently, and its acknowledgment of the dangers inherent in many health care settings as affecting an employee’s ability to function with certain impairments can be instructive to health care employers facing requests for reasonable accommodations.