We are all familiar with the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished.” That apparently is the theme of an Eighth Circuit opinion reviewing an employee’s suit alleging that she was improperly denied an accommodation under the ADA. In Leah M. Powley v. Rail Crew Express, the plaintiff had requested accommodations for a disability eight different times within a three-year period and her employer had granted all of them. However, when she later left work abruptly after asserting that conditions affected her disability, her employer treated it as a resignation.
Leah Powley was a driver for Railcrew Express, LLC, which transported railroad crews to various railyards. Seven months after she started, Powley started asking for accommodations (e.g., excuses from work, changes in her schedule) because of her back pain and headaches. Over a period of almost three years, she asked for eight different accommodations, each time submitting a doctor’s note identifying potential disabilities such as back pain and headaches and a doctor’s restriction. Each time, Railcrew Express granted the requested accommodation. During this period, Railcrew Express promoted her to part-time dispatcher.
The White Board That Broke the Camel’s Back
In the dispatcher office, a dry-erase board was added that apparently upset Powley. She asked the other dispatchers to rearrange the space and when they told her to talk to a superior, she announced “I’m done. I have to leave.” The next day she emailed her employer stating that office noise interfered with her ability to do her job, and she asked to return as a driver. The email did not mention back pain or headaches. Railcrew Express treated it as a resignation.
Did She Ask for an Accommodation?
Powley sued Railcrew Express for failing to accommodate her disabilities and retaliating against her for requesting an accommodation. Railcrew Express moved for summary judgment and the Court granted that motion, dismissing her claims. She appealed the ruling to the Eighth Circuit.. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. In its opinion, the court noted that Powley sought and received numerous reasonable accommodations for her back pain. Specifically, the court stated that each of those requests were accompanied by a doctor’s note or an indication that the request was due to back pain. However, her last request neither attached a doctor’s note, nor connected her request with the known back pain condition. As such, she did not show that her request was based on her alleged disability. The court stated “where there is no conceivable request for an accommodation, there is no failure to accommodate.”
Do We Have to Accommodate Eight Requests in a Row?
As we lawyers like to say, it depends. Undoubtedly, Railcrew Express’s patience with her prior requests helped its case before the Eighth Circuit. However, it is important to remember that each one of those requests was treated as a separate matter and was accompanied with a note from a medical provider connecting the request to a disabling condition. The employer considered each request and was able to provide an accommodation. That kind of track record is helpful in an ADA accommodation case. This opinion shows the importance of making sure that there is ample medical evidence of a disability to trigger the interactive process… and that patience is indeed a legal virtue.