USPS Found in Violation of Rehab Act
(This article was first published in the January/February 2005 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine.)
A clerk who had been receiving Office of Workers' Compensation Program benefits and was subsequently separated from the Postal Service has been awarded a favorable court ruling that says the USPS violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to engage in an “interactive process” to determine whether a reasonable accommodation existed for her.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ordered that the employee be awarded damages equal to the OWCP payments she was denied. She had sought her full salary for the time between the date her OWCP benefits were cut off and the time her doctor first informed the Postal Service she was totally and permanently disabled. But the court relied on evidence that the employee failed to file an Equal Employment Opportunity claim until after her OWCP benefits were cut off.
The employee worked as a Markup Clerk at the Computer Forwarding System unit of the North Suburban (IL) facility. In April 1992, OWCP accepted the claim that her condition of allergic rhino conjunctivitis was an on-the-job illness, and the USPS Medical Department ordered that she be placed in a “temporary light duty assignment” in a “dust-free area.”
After being transferred to a newly built facility in Palatine , IL , she suffered a serious allergic attack while working. Following a fitness–for-duty examination, the Postal Service's physician determined that the clerk needed to be “transferred to an office environment free of dust mites and irritants that may exacerbate her symptoms, ideally out of Central Markup Unit.”
On OWCP Leave
From 1993 to 1997, while the Postal Service made few efforts to return her to employment, the clerk received OWCP benefits and remained in an OWCP leave status. In August 1997, the USPS finally issued the employee a limited duty job offer to return her to work, directing her to report to the Palatine facility in the same position she had previously held, as a Markup Clerk.
A clean-air machine was installed near her work station, but the employee rejected the offer after her doctor said that the machine would not adequately accommodate her condition. The Postal Service made no further attempts at finding light-duty work for her, and in 2000, OWCP determined she was not disabled and terminated her benefits. Although the employee did not return to work, the Postal Service allowed her to continue on unpaid leave for a little more than a year. Finally, she received a notice of separation.
The court found that the employee had established that she was disabled and that she had established that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job as long as reasonable accommodations were made. Moreover, the court determined that “no reasonable jury could conclude that USPS's  Palatine job offer qualified as a ‘reasonable accommodation.'” To support this conclusion, the ruling noted that the Postal Service permitted the employee “to remain on disability,” which “amounts to a near confession by USPS itself that the job offer did not adequately accommodate [the employee's] medical problems.”
A Failure to Interact
Instead of engaging in an “interactive process” to properly inform the employee of her options for reasonable accommodation, the Postal Service, according to the court, “did nothing for three years.” It finally responded “only be re-offering her the rejected unacceptable Palatine position – then placing her on unpaid leave for sixteen months” before terminating her.
“Clearly, unpaid medical leave does not meet the USPS burden of engaging in an interactive process, or providing reasonable accommodation,” the court said.
In its summation, the court ruled that the Postal Service violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate the employee's disability between the period of July 15, 2000 and March 5, 2001 .
“The Postal Service slept through nearly eight years” while the employee received OWCP benefits on a full-time basis, the court ruling said, and “once awakened from its slumber, the Postal Service's sole action was so woefully inadequate to suggest a total lack of effort on their part to comply with the statutory requirements of the Rehabilitation Act.” (Sutton v. Potter, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, Case No. 02 C 2702, 3/19/2004 )
District Court Rules USPS violated the Rehabilitation Act
Postal Worker Fired After Eight Years Of Leave Wins Disability Case
An Illinois postal worker who was on disability leave for over eight years before the U.S. Postal Service cut off her benefits and fired her demonstrated that the employer violated the Rehabilitation Act by cutting off disability benefits without investigating whether she could fill another job, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled March 19 (Sutton v. Potter, N.D. Ill., No. 02-C-2702, 3/19/03).
Sandra Sutton went on disability leave from her clerical job April 21, 1992, after having a serious allergy attack brought on by the dusty conditions at the Palatine, Ill., postal facility. The Postal Service informed her in July 2000 that it was ending her disability benefits, but it did not engage in an interactive process to identify a new position that would not trigger her allergies, Judge Harry D. Leinenweber said, finding that Sutton was due disability benefits for the period following July 15, 2000. The court found she was not due lost wages for the same period, because she did not make the appropriate administrative complaint.
Commenting on the Postal Service's "ineffective conduct" in the case, the
court said "First it appears that the Postal Service slept through nearly
eight years of Sutton collecting disability at government expense. Second,
once awakened from its slumber, the Postal Service's sole action was so
woefully inadequate as to suggest a total lack of effort on their part to
comply with the statutory requirements of the Rehabilitation Act."
Between 1993 and 1997, "neither Sutton nor USPS demonstrated any practical interest in getting Sutton back to work either at her old job or in a new assignment," the court said. In 1997, the employer issued her a limited-duty job offer as a clerk at the Palatine facility, with a clean air machine near her work station. She rejected the offer after her doctor said that the machine would not adequately accommodate her condition. The machine could handle 15,000 square feet of space, but the work room was 169,920 square feet, the court added.
Under USPS regulations, the court said, a disabled employee's rejection of a job offer triggers a "suitability" determination, in which the employer investigates whether the offered job would sufficiently accommodate the disabled employee. A finding that the job is suitable would result in the loss of disability benefits for the employee, the court explained.
Instead of making a suitability determination, USPS did "effectively" nothing for almost three years, the court said. Then, in May 2000, the workers' compensation office told Sutton it no longer considered her too disabled to work. Although Sutton protested with medical evidence, she was told her benefits would end July 15, 2000.
Sutton did not show up for work July 15, and instead requested 30 days of unpaid leave. For the next 16 months, she called in sick once a month, requesting more unpaid leave. USPS concedes that it had dust-fee jobs to which it could have transferred her during both her disability leave and the unpaid leave time.
In October 2001, the workers' compensation office affirmed its decision
to cut off her disability benefits. USPS sent her a letter offering her
three ways to end her career at USPS: resignation, optional retirement, or
disability retirement. Sutton chose "the unmentioned option four," the court
said, and filed an equal employment opportunity claim with the postal
service, charging the employer with failing to accommodate her medical
restrictions. In December 2001, she filed a formal complaint with the Equal
Employment Opportunity Office.
"These actions constitute discrete acts with their own 45-day statute of
limitation window," the court said. Sutton internally appealed this benefits
cut-off, and continued to pursue administrative remedies, tolling the
statute of limitations. However, because Sutton did not properly complain
about USPS's failure to reasonably accommodate her, she could only seek
damages in the form of the disability benefits--not all her lost wages--for
the period of July 15, 2000 through Sept. 10, 2001, the court said.
Instead of instigating the interactive process after Sutton turned down the job, "USPS did nothing for three years," the court said, and then terminated her benefits, reoffered her the unacceptable position, placed her on unpaid medical leave, and finally terminated her. "Clearly, unpaid medical leave does not meet USPS' burden of engaging in an interactive process, or providing reasonable accommodation," the court said.
Jennifer Kay Soule of Soule, Bradtke & Lambert in Chicago represented
Sutton. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago represented the postal
return to PostalReporter.com