Labor & Employment Law Daily LPN who suffered severe injuries in car accident not qualified individual
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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

LPN who suffered severe injuries in car accident not qualified individual

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

The LPN’s injuries included fractures to her skull, pelvis, and sacrum, plus compound leg fractures. She could only perform teaching and paperwork duties afterwards.

Affirming summary judgment for the VA, the Seventh Circuit concluded that an LPN who was seriously injured in a car accident was unable to show she was a qualified individual under the Rehab Act and thus could not prevail on her disability bias claim. The evidence showed that her numerous physical limitations prevented her, with or without accommodation from treating and observing patients, giving immunizations, managing the front desk, or responding to medical emergencies, all of which were essential job functions of a VA LPN (Conners v. Wilkie, January 14, 2021, Sykes, D.).

Devastating car accident. After five years as an LPN at a VA clinic, the LPN was hit by a car and sustained severe injuries, including fractures to her skull, pelvis, and sacrum, plus compound leg fractures. She required surgery and returned to work part-time six months later, but she only worked for one day before a screw holding a rod in her left leg broke, necessitating another surgery and several more months off work. When she returned, she had numerous physical limitations: She could not treat and observe patients, give immunizations, manage the front desk, or respond to medical emergencies.

Accommodation requests. Her supervisor relieved the LPN of most of her responsibilities and limited her duties to teaching and completing paperwork for the next nine months, not forwarding medical reports about her continued physical limitations to the VA’s accommodation coordinator. But VA management eventually learned the full impact of her disability on her job performance, and the LPN was required to fill out a formal accommodation request, in which she sought a private office, the ability to elevate her leg every one-two hours, a footstool, no standing for more than 10-15 minutes at a time, and no walking of more than 25 yards. The VA could only grant the footstool request, and the LPN filed an administrative complaint alleging failure to accommodate. The request form’s certification noted “I understand that if [the] VA cannot find a suitable position, the agency has no further obligation to accommodate me,” which the LPN crossed out.

Termination. After several months of an apparent stalemate, the LPN submitted a second request, again crossing out the same portion of the certification, and the VA attempted to find the LPN an alternate position, but it was unsuccessful. The VA gave the LPN three options: reassignment to a non-nursing job; medical disability retirement; or termination. She refused them all, demanding she retain her current position, but the VA eventually sent her a notice of proposed removal in January 2014, stating that between December 1, 2011, and December 11, 2013, she had missed the equivalent of 304 full workdays due to her numerous surgeries.

After filing another administrative complaint with the VA, which it dismissed, she sued the VA and moved for summary judgment. The VA cross-moved for summary judgment, and district judge ruled for the VA, finding she had not offered evidence that she was a qualified individual with a disability.

Qualified individual. It was undisputed that the LPN satisfied the basic prerequisites for the position—she was an LPN who had performed the job satisfactorily for several years before her disabling accident, so the appeals court turned to whether she could still perform the essential functions of the LPN position with or without accommodations when the VA made its decision to terminate her job. The VA job description required LPNs to treat and observe patients, assist in medical emergencies, and to “have the physical ability to perform job-related duties which require lifting, standing, bending, transferring, stooping, stretching, walking, pushing, or pulling without assistance from another patient care provider.” Before her accident, the LPN’s job duties also included administering and supervising immunizations, plus managing the front desk.

After the accident, however, restrictions on her ability to tolerate sustained periods of standing or to walk more than 25 yards at a time made it impossible for the LPN to treat and observe patients, respond to medical emergencies, give immunizations, or manage the front desk. Overall, her injuries resulted in limitations “incompatible with the physical requirements outlined in her job description,” concluded the Seventh Circuit.

Undue hardship. Although the LPN claimed she could perform reduced duties after the accident—teaching and paperwork—the fact that her supervisor allowed many of the LPN’s job duties to go unperformed does not mean those duties were not essential job functions. Nor did the supervisor’s decision to reduce the LPN’s responsibilities mean that altering the normal requirements of an LPN was not an undue hardship, as the LPN appeared to argue. But the undue-hardship inquiry is a defense and irrelevant until the LPN established her prima facie case. Instead, the appeals court found it undisputed that it was impossible for the LPN to perform the essential duties of an LPN even with accommodations.

Other vacant positions. Though she was not qualified to perform her job as an LPN, the LPN was given the opportunity to show that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of another vacant position at the VA. She did not; she offered no evidence that she could perform the essential functions of any vacant position at the VA, so a reasonable jury could not conclude that the VA discriminated against her by failing to reassign her.

Interactive process. Finally, there was no evidence, although the LPN argued otherwise, that the VA failed to engage in the interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations for her disability. Because she could not show that she was qualified to perform her LPN job with accommodations, “any failure to engage in the interactive process is irrelevant,” reasoned the appeals court, which has “repeatedly held that the mere failure to engage in the process cannot give rise to a claim for relief.”

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