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Known Disabilities Must Be Accommodated

Canteen Corp. v. Pennsylvania, 814 A.2d 805, (Pa. Commonwealth) is an employment discrimination suit. Here, the employer violated the Human Relations Act because the employer failed to accommodate an employee's disability. The Defendant appealed the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission's decision; however, the decision was affirmed by the court. 

The Plaintiff began working for the Defendant in 1985 as an accounting clerk. The Plaintiff's job entailed filing stacks of documents and carrying folders and envelops that weighed up to five pounds. These tasks required the plaintiff to frequently bend and lift objects. In 1987, the Plaintiff suffered a back injury that led to surgery and a five-month medical absence from work. When the Plaintiff returned, she brought a doctor's note that prevented her from lifting anything weighing 25 pounds or more. For twelve years this was not a problem because the Plaintiff's job did not consist of her lifting anything that weighed close to 25 pounds. However, in 1999 the defendant started cross-training employees to perform other task on top of their daily duties, including lifting 20 pound bags all day long. The Plaintiff was one of those employees. The Plaintiff expressed her concern of this task due to her disability and she was asked to update her 1987 doctor's note by the Defendant. As requested, the Plaintiff obtained the note and was advised by the doctor to avoid any lifting or bending activities, including lifting a pencil or paper. As a result of the updated Doctor's note, the plaintiff was terminated because the Defendant did not have a job for her to perform safely.

Normally, an employee must satisfy the McDonnell Douglas test to establish employment discrimination. This is a four-prong test: 1) employee belongs to protected minority 2) applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants 3) was rejected despite being qualified for the position 4) after the rejection, the position remained open and the employer continued to seek applicants from person of complaint's qualifications. However, the McDonnell Douglas test is unnecessary if the plaintiff has proof that the termination was a result of his/her disability. Here, the Plaintiff did have such proof, so the Defendant's argument was denied.

Finally, once the employee informs the employer of his/her disability it is the employer's responsibility to begin the interactive process to determine a solution. Here, the plaintiff's updated doctor's note constituted informing the employer. Then the court provided a number of options the Defendant could have exercised that fulfilled the interactive process. For example, the Defendant could have contacted the physician who wrote the note to determine exactly what activities the employee could or couldn't perform. Ultimately, the employer violated its duty in this instance and the plaintiff was awarded six months pay plus interest.

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