By: Kelsey P. Montgomery

When new management moves in to an organization, sweeping changes to standing company policies often result.  The intention may be to signal a changing of the guard, to shake things up, or to simply update or improve internal processes.  Whatever the reason, common sense must guide implementation of such broad changes (especially if made before new managers are familiar with the employees under their supervision).  Don’t forget, things may have been done a certain way historically for a good (compliance) reason!

A federal district court in Illinois recently addressed such a situation.  A new manager’s priorities resulted in a policy change, purportedly to align company practices and apply policies even-handedly.  The change had the unintended effect, however, of eliminating an employee’s existing Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) accommodation.  The plaintiff in Isbell v. John Crane, Inc., Dkt. No. 11-C-2347 (N.D. IL. March 21, 2014) took medications in the morning to manage her Adult Attention Deficit and Bipolar Disorders.  Although the plaintiff’s regular shift began at 8:30 a.m., her medications “did not kick in until several hours after she awoke.”  Historically, the employee reported to work at 10 a.m. without objection from her supervisor as long as she completed her assigned tasks.

The employer accommodated this late arrival for over two and half years.  The employee’s supervisor, however, in response to a “heightened emphasis on attendance” from his new boss, abruptly established inflexible work hours that applied to every employee in the same way, including the plaintiff and despite her prior accommodation.  In response to Plaintiff’s renewed requests for a reasonable accommodation, her start time was moved to 9:15 a.m.  Plaintiff was unable to arrive to work at the designated time and continued to submit medical documentation to her employer supporting her requests for a 10:00 a.m. start.  After months of tardiness and no change in her start time, Plaintiff was terminated for violating Defendant’s attendance policy.  In response, the employee brought a failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA.

In granting the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, the court stated that “[n]o real reason has been proffered by [the employer] as to why a new management broom…should be entitled to start by subjecting [plaintiff] to a one-size-fits all timing sweep.”  For the Court, the issue was not whether allowing plaintiff to report to work late was a reasonable accommodation, but rather whether “it was reasonable for [her employer] to withdraw that existing accommodation” abruptly through a unilateral policy change.  The Court also considered whether continuing that accommodation created an undue hardship for the company – something its management should have considered before implementing the new policy.

This case signals to employers that, despite a changing of the guard, managers seeking to implement new policies or change outdated ones should take care to carefully consider any potential ADA implications before altering a covered employee’s standing accommodation.