A plaintiff’s demand that her supervisor adopt a less overbearing management style was an unreasonable accommodation request under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal district court in Florida has found. Hargett v. Florida Atlantic Univ. Board of Trustees, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154822 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 8, 2016).
The plaintiff, who suffered from epileptic seizures since childhood, worked for the defendant-university as a librarian. She informed the university her seizures were linked to high tension and stress and she considered her job to be a stressful work environment that could cause her to have seizures. She complained that her supervisor was “becoming uniquely rough or harsh” in his treatment of her. The plaintiff alleged her supervisor’s bullying and harassment caused her to have frequent seizures at work. As a result, the plaintiff requested the following accommodations: (1) the supervisor “cease his hostile confrontations” with the plaintiff; (2) her supervisor undergo sensitivity training; and (3) to reduce risk of injury from seizure, the university ensure the plaintiff’s cubicle did not contain sharp corners. The university accommodated only the third request.
Among several other claims, the plaintiff filed suit alleging the university discriminated against her based on her disability in violation of the ADA because it allegedly failed to provide reasonable accommodations. The university asserted that it accommodated some of her requests and denied only those that were vague and/or unreasonable. The trial court agreed with the university and granted summary judgment for the university on the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim. It concluded that since some of the plaintiff’s requests were vague, the university was not required to consider the requests.
Further, the court stated that the plaintiff could not “immunize herself from stress and criticism” in general and that appeals to work in a more nurturing work environment, not directed at any particular person, are not sufficient. Since the plaintiff merely characterized her supervisor’s management style as a “series of hostile confrontations” and did not identify any specific stressors caused by the supervisor, the court found her request unreasonable and granted the university summary judgment motion on the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim.
Key to the court’s decision was the plaintiff’s inability to identify specific actions taken by her supervisor that allegedly caused her to have frequent seizures at work. This case shows the importance to employers (through their counsel during a plaintiff’s deposition and at trial) of questioning a plaintiff for specifics regarding any requests for accommodation. Vague or conclusory statements, instead of specific actions an employer can take, could be unreasonable.