Unrein v. PHC-Fort Morgan, Inc.

In April 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decided Unrein v. PHC-Fort Morgan, Inc., 993 F.3d 873 (10th Cir. 2021).  The plaintiff, a clinical dietician, sued after she was terminated from her job at the defendant’s medical center alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its Colorado counterpart.  The plaintiff had become legally blind and was unable to drive herself to work.  She also could not find reliable rides to work.  After a bench trial, the district court found that the plaintiff’s requested accommodation of a wholly flexible work schedule with no set times that she would be at the medical center was unreasonable.  The Tenth Circuit agreed that this was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  The court found that the evidence supported the district court’s determination that physical presence at the medical center was an essential function of the clinical dietician’s job duties—at least for several hours every work day.  The court also emphasized that the medical center was not under an obligation to accommodate the plaintiff’s transportation barrier because that was not an essential function of her job.  However, the Tenth Circuit also made clear that employers are required to make reasonable accommodations so that disabled employees can perform the essential functions of their job.  The court further stated that “responsible employers will continue to work with all employees to reach reasonable work arrangements, including obstacles outside the workplace.”

Although this case was decided in the specific context of an ADA challenge, it contains useful guidance for employers who are grappling with the return to in-person work.  Reasonable, equally applied job conditions are generally enforceable.  But employers should work with employees to reach mutually satisfactory arrangements that equitably balance the needs of the business, the employee’s job duties, and any other relevant factors.


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