Please, Please, Please Use Common Sense When Responding to an Employee’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation

This case is a good example of just how expensive it can be when we don’t. The Plaintiff in this case, Mr. Burnette, worked in a call center for Ocean Properties. The call center was located in the clubhouse of a golf club. (Sounds a little sketchy right off the bat.)  The public entrance to the club house, which Mr. Burnett had to use, had two heavy, wooden doors that pulled outward and then automatically closed. The area leading to the doors had a slight, downward slope away from the doors. Mr. Burnette was a paraplegic who used a wheelchair, and he had a very difficult time opening the doors by himself without rolling down the slope. In fact, after complaining several times and asking Ocean Properties to install push-button automatic doors, Mr. Burnette injured his wrist while trying to get through the doors by himself.

Rather than install the automatic doors, which would have cost around two thousand dollars, Ocean Properties merely confirmed that the doors were ADA-compliant when the clubhouse was built. However, at no time did Ocean Properties respond to any of Mr. Burnette’s requests for an accommodation or do anything to determine how it could help him more easily access the building. (At trial, Mr. Burnette testified that he was “tired, frustrated, [and] angry” that he never heard a response to his request and that he believed the defendants did not wish to accommodate him.)

Understandably, Mr. Burnette sued his employer on the grounds that Ocean Properties had unreasonably failed to accommodate his open and apparent disability. At trial Ocean Properties argued that since Mr. Burnette was excelling at his job despite his difficulties in entering the premises, he did not actually need a reasonable accommodation.  Alternately, Ocean Properties argued that his request for automatic doors was not reasonable in any case.

The jury and Court of Appeals disagreed with both of Ocean Properties’ contentions “The fact that Burnett was able to enter the clubhouse (at the risk of bodily injury) despite this difficulty and to perform the duties of an associate once inside does not necessarily mean he did not require an accommodation or that his requested accommodation was unreasonable, as Appellants claim.”  and held that Ocean Properties had indeed failed to reasonably accommodate Mr. Burnette.  The jury awarded Mr. Burnette $150,000 in compensatory damages.

The jury also awarded Mr. Burnette $500,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed the award of punitive damages, focusing on the fact that not only did Ocean Properties refuse to reasonably accommodate Mr. Burnette, but it also failed to respond to any of his numerous pleas for help. Had Ocean Properties simply exercised common sense and engaged in a dialogue with Mr. Burnette, it may well have avoided this punitive damage award even if it lost the underlying failure to accommodate claim.

In addition to compensatory and punitive damages, Ocean Properties was ordered to pay Mr. Burnette’s legal fees.  When you include its own legal fees with the damages and legal fees awarded to Mr. Burnette, Ocean Properties easily spent well over one million dollars on this case, as opposed to the two thousand dollars that the automatic doors would have cost. (Actually, Ocean Properties could have installed approximately 500 sets of automatic doors for what this case cost it in monetary losses alone.)

Ocean Properties clearly made mistakes at several junctures: it failed to follow up with an employees’ repeated requests for an accommodation; it failed to make what would appear to be a very reasonable accommodation; and it failed to exercise even a modicum of common sense in its dealings with Mr. Burnette. When addressing an employee’s request for an accommodation, it is critical that we use our common sense, step back, and see the situation as an objective third-party would see it. Even if we don’t prevail on the underlying claim, we may still avoid a very expensive punitive damage judgment.

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