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ADA suit of fired worker with Tourette’s syndrome reinstated


A federal appeals court has reinstated Americans with Disabilities Act litigation filed by a fired auto parts store manager who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, citing incorrect instructions given by the judge to the jury, which went on to rule against the former employee.

The district court erred when it instructed the jury that, for a disabled employee to successfully establish a failure-to-accommodate claim, he must prove he needed an accommodation to perform his job’s essential functions, said the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in Brian Bell v. O’Reilly Auto Enterprises LLC, d/b/a/ O’Reilly Auto Parts.

Mr. Bell lives with Tourette’s syndrome as well as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and major depression, according to the ruling. He takes medication but still experiences motor tics often accompanied by a mild verbal noise, and he cannot concentrate easily, the ruling said.

Despite these symptoms, Mr. Bell earned a position with Springfield, Missouri-based O’Reilly Auto Parts to manage its Belfast, Maine, store.  He worked for months in this role without incident, putting in more than 50 hours a week and 10.5 hours a day, the ruling said.

After he lost two shift leaders, he began working almost 100 hours a week and 15-hour days, the ruling said. His symptoms grew more severe and his motor tics more frequent and more painful.

O’Reilly denied Mr. Bell’s requested accommodation that he be scheduled for no more than 45 hours a week and eventually terminated him.

He filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland, Maine, charging violations of the ADA and state law, which led to the jury verdict against him.

Giving them their “their most natural reading,” the judge’s instructions in the case “required an employee to demonstrate that he could not perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation,” said the unanimous three-judge appeals court panel’s ruling.

However, “an employee who can, with some difficulty, perform the essential functions of his job without accommodation remains eligible to request and receive a reasonable accommodation,” the ruling said.

To make a failure to accommodate claim, a plaintiff need only show that he is handicapped within the ADA’s meaning; he is nonetheless qualified to perform the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodation; and the employer knew of the disability but declined to reasonably accommodate it upon request, the ruling said.

“By instructing the jury that an employee must demonstrate that he needed an accommodation to perform the essential functions of his job, the district court wrongly limited O’Reilly’s potential liability,” the ruling said in vacating the lower court’s judgment and remanding the case for a new trial.

In response to a request for comment, one of Mr. Bell’s attorneys, Allen K. Townsend of the Portland-based Maine Employee Rights Group, pointed to a statement posted by the organization that states, “This case is not only important for Mr. Bell, it is important for the rights of all disabled workers. 

“The First Circuit’s decision makes clear that employers may not refuse to provide reasonable accommodations to employees who are struggling through pain or stress to perform their jobs.  If reasonable accommodations would relieve this pain or stress, an employer must provide those accommodations to the disabled employee.”

O’Reilly's attorney had no comment.