Demotion Allowed as Reasonable Accommodation, 7th Circuit Rules

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

December 9, 2019

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that under certain circumstances a demotion can qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In its ruling, the Chicago-based appellate court held that "a demotion can be a reasonable accommodation when the employer cannot accommodate the disabled employee in her current or prior jobs or an equivalent position."

Brigid Ford was a county deputy sheriff when she badly injured her hand in a car accident that occurred on the job. After being assigned light-duty work for about a year, Ford was informed that she would have to transfer to a civilian position with lower pay, resign or be terminated. After months of discussion regarding reasonable accommodations, Ford accepted a civilian job as a jail visitation clerk.

As part of the transfer, Ford had requested and received a hands-free telephone and ergonomic work station. She also was allowed to take breaks as needed to alleviate her pain. These accommodations enabled her to perform her duties in the new position. In addition, her supervisors received training regarding Ford's condition.

However, Ford later claimed that her demotion was not a reasonable accommodation, and filed suit for disability discrimination and retaliation.

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified as disabled under the ADA. If an employee's impairment renders him or her unable to perform the job, the individual may be entitled to reassignment as a reasonable accommodation if a job is available.

In its ruling, the 7th Circuit explained that if Ford could show that she qualified for a vacant position that more closely matched her previous job, the ADA would have obliged the Sheriff's Office to offer it to her.

But the appellate court rejected Ford's claim that the demotion was discriminatory and retaliatory. "We have trouble imagining how a demotion that qualifies as a reasonable accommodation required by the ADA can, at the same time, constitute disability discrimination or retaliation prohibited by the ADA," the court said.

Littler shareholder Jeff Nowak explained the importance that the interactive process played in the case to identify possible modifications to help Ford perform her job. "It's clear that the employer engaged the employee repeatedly on how it might provide modifications to the employee's job duties to allow her to maintain her current position," Nowak said, including providing enhanced work equipment and additional breaks to help alleviate her pain, and even offering to train her supervisors.

It was only after the employer could not accommodate the employee in her current role or an equivalent position that the employer considered other lower-level opportunities that would require a cut in pay or responsibilities. "As a last resort and to avoid potentially placing her on extended leave, it offered her a lower-level position," Nowak said. "This is precisely what the ADA contemplates, and the employer's approach here is a model to follow."