Termination not Wrongful Where Plaintiff Could not Perform Essential Functions of Position

Jacobsen v New York City Health & Hosp. Corp., 97 AD3d 428 (1st Dept. 2012) (Motion for leave to appeal granted on Oct. 2, 2012)

The plaintiff alleged he was wrongfully terminated from his position because of a disability in violation of New York State Human Rights Law, Executive Law § 296(1)(a), and the New York City Human Rights Law. He was employed as a Health Facilities Planner by New York City Health & Hospitals Corp. (HHC), where his primary duties involved monitoring independent contractors on construction and renovation projects at facilities operated by HHC. These duties required the plaintiff’s physical presence at various construction sites on a daily basis.

In September 2005, the plaintiff was diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease. Over the next 18 months, the plaintiff was granted a medical leave of absence and a six-month unpaid leave, during which he was in contact with HHC regarding whether his medical condition permitted him to perform the essential functions of his position. Although the plaintiff requested that he be assigned exclusively to perform office duties at HHC’s central office, HHC took the position that the essential duties of his position required the plaintiff to be physically present at the construction sites in the field. After the plaintiff’s own medical doctor confirmed that the plaintiff could no longer perform these tasks, he was terminated by HHC.

The Supreme Court granted HHC’s motion for summary judgment and the appellate court affirmed. The latter court found that after the plaintiff made a prima facie showing of disability discrimination, HHC had met its burden of establishing that the termination was justified because the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of his position, even with a reasonable accommodation. The court noted that a reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to find another job for the employee, create a new job, or create a light-version duty of his current job. The court also noted that HHC had engaged in an “interactive process” in evaluating the plaintiff’s condition while on two separate medical leaves and only terminated him after definitive evidence existed that the plaintiff could not perform the essential duties of his position.

The dissent found that the plaintiff’s evidence that he could have performed the duties of his position with proper respiratory equipment, and that the provision of suchequipment could have been a reasonable accommodation that HHC failed to exercise, raised triable issues of fact.

The New York Court of Appeals’ resolution of this appeal will likely define the boundaries of what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” under New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. The decision will no doubt impact employers in New York State.