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Detention Center Did Not Discriminate Against Injured Youth Worker, Court Rules

Friday, January 4, 2013
Wardia v. Justice & Pub. Safety Cabinet Dep't of Juvenile Justice, 6th Cir., No. 12-5337, unpublished opinion 1/3/13

Key Holding:Juvenile detention center did not need to accommodate youth worker because neck injury prevented him from performing physical restraints, which was essential function of the position.

Key Takeaway:Employers need not provide accommodations that are unreasonable, or that would eliminate essential job functions.

By Anne A. Marchessault

A youth worker at a juvenile detention center cannot advance his disabilities discrimination claim because a neck injury prevented him from performing an essential function of the position, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in an unpublished opinion Jan. 3 (Wardia v. Justice & Pub. Safety Cabinet Dep't of Juvenile Justice, 6th Cir., No. 12-5337, unpublished opinion 1/3/13).

John Wardia suffered a neck injury that prevented him from physically restraining detained juveniles at the Campbell County Regional Juvenile Detention Center, the court found, and he thus could not advance his failure-to-accommodate claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.

The Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Department of Juvenile Justice also did not need to grant Wardia's requested reassignment to a permanent job in the center's control room, the court said, because the position operated on a temporary or rotating basis.

“The evidence shows that physical restraints, although rare, are essential for maintaining safety in the facility, and the control room is a light-duty, temporary or rotating position that the Department is not obligated to convert into a permanent job,” Judge Danny J. Boggs wrote. Judges Boyce F. Martin and Curtis L. Collier joined in the opinion.

Permanently Prevented from Performing Restraints
Wardia worked as a youth worker at the juvenile detention center from 2003 to 2009. He suffered a neck injury at some point during his employment that prevented him from performing physical restraints of juveniles.

He asked for and received a temporary accommodation working in the control room of the center. The control room is a light-duty position, where rotating youth workers will watch the facility monitors, let people in and out of the building, and document any movements.

After Wardia's doctor indicated that his injury was permanent, the center placed him on leave. Before the end of the leave period, Wardia requested permanent assignment to the control room. The center refused the request, and issued a final intent of notice to dismiss Wardia Jan. 4, 2010.

Wardia filed suit, alleging violations of the ADA and KCRA. The department moved for summary judgment. After the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky granted the motion, Wardia appealed.

Description, Training Establish Essential Function
The court found that the department proved that restraining juveniles was an essential function of youth workers: the department's policy treats the ability to perform physical restraints as an essential function of the position; the position's written job description lists specifically performing restraints as one of its essential functions; and youth workers are required to undergo routine safe-physical-management-skills training.

Wardia argued that physical restraints are too rare to be considered essential, but the court disagreed.

“Rarity alone will not support denial of summary judgment: courts will first look to the seriousness of failing to perform the low-probability job function,” Boggs wrote. “Here,” he said, “inability to properly restrain juveniles could have serious consequences for the safety of staff and juveniles at the facility.”

Furthermore, the court said, the center could subject itself to liability from injured employees and juveniles if it did not mandate that its staff maintain such skills.

Wardia also claimed that physical restraints are optional in practice, and that more experienced staff members will relieve weaker co-workers of the responsibility if necessary.

The court noted, however, that Wardia did not allege that any workers never had to perform restraints.

“Simply because some employees more often or more capably perform a certain function does not make it any less essential for everyone else,” Boggs wrote.

Restraint Help, Reassignment Not Reasonable
Wardia's request for accommodations were not reasonable under the ADA or KCRA, the court decided.

He proposed two accommodations: working all youth worker functions, but being relieved by co-workers in physical restraints; or permanent reassignment to the control room.

The court found that Wardia's proposal of working with assistance to perform restraints was not reasonable because the ADA does not require employers to shift essential job functions onto others.

Wardia's requested reassignment to the control room was also unreasonable, the court decided, despite Wardia's argument that he had been able to work in the room without incident for one year.

The center's control room position operated on a rotating basis for youth workers, the court noted, providing a break from dealing directly with juveniles.

According to the court, employers are not required under the ADA to convert rotating or temporary positions into permanent positions. “To do otherwise would actually frustrate the purposes of the ADA: if employers are locked into extending temporary positions for injured workers on a permanent basis (whether initially granted consistent with company policy or as a well-intentioned special arrangement), they might well be less inclined to permit such an arrangement in the first place,” Boggs wrote.

Wardia's claim that an injured co-worker had been offered a permanent position in the control room did not convince the court that the requested accommodation was reasonable under the ADA.

“An isolated, unaccepted job offer … does not create a new position or change the status of similar positions,” Boggs said.

Because the requested accommodation was “on its face unreasonable,” the court granted summary judgment to the department.

Norman J. Blankenship and Randy J. Blankenship of Blankenship Massey & Steelman in Erlanger, Ky., represented Wardia. Jamhal L. Woolridge of the commonwealth of Kentucky's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet in Frankfort represented the center.

By Anne A. Marchessault

Text of the opinion is available at /uploadedFiles/Content/News/Legal_and_Business/Bloomberg_Law/Legal_Reports/Wardia-Ruling(1).pdf.

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