How Much Accommodation is Necessary?

How much accommodation is necessary for an agency to comply with the Rehabilitation Act? In this case, the court found that the Postal Service did not unlawfully discriminate when it placed an employee on sick leave and a court granted summary judgment for the agency.

A mail processing clerk with near-blindness who sued the postal service under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate has lost her case in the district court. (Clayborne v. Potter, Postmaster General, United States Postal Service, D.C.D.C. CA No. 05-915 (RMC), 9/11/06) The facts outlined below are taken from the court’s memorandum opinion.

When Clayborne developed a progressive eye condition that left her almost completely blind and unable to fulfill the functions of her job, she was assigned to alternate duties. When she began to have accidents at work leading to injuries to her, she was placed on sick leave and referred to the agency’s District Reasonable Accommodation Committee. Working with an outside assistance agency, Clayborne returned to work a year later with a special assistive device and working in a manual mail sorting operation. (p. 1)

Clayborne was not satisfied with the delay in returning her to work and filed suit in district court. The court granted the agency’s motion for summary judgment, “[b]ecause USPS did not discriminate against Ms. Clayborne, and in fact it accommodated her disability….” (p. 2)

The court found that Clayborne was not qualified for her job since she could not do the duties of her original position as a mail processing clerk. Moreover, she was unqualified because her condition “posed a direct threat to her own safety. She had three workplace accidents…and her supervisor requested that she have a fitness-for-duty exam in order to prevent another accident, which he feared could be serious or even fatal.” Therefore, she was not a “qualified individual” under the Rehab Act. As such, the agency did not discriminate against her when it placed her on sick leave. (pp. 9-10)

Turning to the question as to whether the agency had reasonably accommodated Clayborne, the court concluded that it had. It looked at the facts leading up to her reassignment and return to work, which included working with the Lighthouse for the Blind to obtain specialized equipment for her use at work. As the court stated, “This course of events demonstrates that USPS acted reasonably and in good faith in accommodating Ms. Clayborne’s disability. This process simply took a year.” (p. 13)

In the end, the court rendered summary judgment for the agency.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.