Yesterday, the First Circuit ruled in favor of the Maine Employee Rights Group’s (MERG) client Brian Bell in a disability discrimination case. MERG attorney Allan Townsend argued to the First Circuit that the trial judge gave an erroneous jury instruction during the trial and the First Circuit agreed. As a result, there will be a new trial in this case against O’Reilly Auto.
The trial judge gave the erroneous jury instruction when he instructed the jury on Mr. Bell’s failure-to-accommodate claim. Both federal and state law require employers to provide disabled employees with “reasonable accommodations.” Reasonable accommodations include things like modified schedules, medical leave, and alterations to the work environment to make it accessible. Mr. Bell, who worked as a Store Manager, requested an adjustment to his schedule as a reasonable accommodation for his mental disabilities. He requested the schedule adjustment because he was experiencing high levels of stress due, in large part, to the fact that he had had to work extremely long hours because his store was short staffed.
The erroneous jury instruction required MERG to prove that its client “needed an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job.” During the trial, Mr. Bell testified that if O’Reilly had adjusted his schedule as he requested, he would still “find a way” to work as many hours as necessary to get the job done and that he would work outside of his scheduled hours if necessary. O’Reilly’s attorney, relying on the erroneous instruction, argued to the jury that Mr. Bell did not actually need the accommodation he requested because Mr. Bell testified that he could work as many hours as necessary.
The First Circuit recognized that an “employee who can, with some difficulty, perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation remains eligible to request and receive a reasonable accommodation.” The court held that the jury instruction was erroneous because it required MERG to prove that Mr. Bell could not perform his essential job functions without an accommodation. According to the First Circuit, by “instructing the jury that an employee must demonstrate that he needed an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job, the district court wrongly limited O’Reilly’s potential liability.”
This case is not only important for Mr. Bell, it is important for the rights of all disabled workers. The First Circuit’s decision makes clear that employers may not refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are struggling through pain or stress to perform their jobs. If reasonable accommodations would relieve this pain or stress, an employer must provide those accommodations to the disabled employee.