On Wednesday, the Tenth Circuit joined the First, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in holding that transferring an employee for the purposes of medical treatment or therapy may be a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act – even if an employee is able to perform essential functions of a job without such a transfer.
Plaintiff Clarice Sanchez, a U.S. Forest Service employee based in Luftin, Texas, brought suit against the agency after suffering a serious fall at work that resulted in permanent brain damage and nerve injury that caused Sanchez to lose half of her field of vision in each eye. After the fall, Sanchez requested a hardship transfer to the Forest Service’s Albuquerque, New Mexico office in order to obtain specialized therapy for her injury and live closer to family and friends who could assist her. She was granted a 120-day temporary assignment there, but was not chosen for either of the two equivalent-pay permanent jobs that were available after coworkers expressed dissatisfaction with her work performance.
After her return to Texas, Sanchez alleged that she was subjected to ridicule (including comments that she was “crazy” and “not right in the head”) by her co-workers and supervisor before she agreed to accept a lower-paying position with the Forest Service in Albuquerque. She then filed suit in New Mexico federal court, claiming the Forest Service discriminated against her in violation of the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate her disability and by subjecting her to a hostile work environment. The district court dismissed her claims and held that Sanchez’s condition – homonymous hemianopsia – did not substantially limit the major life activity of seeing because she was able to drive (despite doctor’s order), read, ride a bicycle, and otherwise care for herself.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit reversed summary judgment, finding that Sanchez produced “ample evidence that ‘the manner in which’ she sees is substantially limited as compared to the average individual. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(4)(i).” After noting EEOC regulations and several other circuits that have held that accommodations are not limited to those that are necessary to allow an individual to perform the essential functions of the job, the Tenth Circuit also went on to hold “as a matter of law that transferring an employee for the purposes of treatment or therapy may be a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act.”
A copy of the Tenth Circuit’s opinion in Sanchez v. Vilsack is available at http://www.ca10.uscourts.gov/opinions/11/11-2118.pdf.