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7th Cir. Revives Nursing Home Hairdresser's ADA Claim

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 20, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Debra Kauffman worked as a hairdresser at a nursing home. Part of her duties involved regular hairdresser-type stuff, but two days a week, she had to wheel residents who were in wheelchairs to and from their appointments in the nursing home's beauty shop. The trip from residential room to beauty shop took her 500 feet, at most, and over some ramps. Residents ranged in weight from 75 to 400 pounds, with an average of about 120 pounds.

Kauffman underwent surgery in 2010, requiring her not to push or lift anything during the recovery period. Her doctor wrote a letter to her employer saying so, but the employer said it couldn't accommodate her disability, so Kauffman quit and filed an ADA claim.

This Sounds Like a Factual Dispute

The district court granted summary judgment for the nursing home, finding that "wheeling patients to and from the beauty parlor is an essential part of the hairdressers' job and therefore there was no reasonable accommodation to the plaintiff's disability that would enable her to meet the employer's reasonable expectations."

Sounds reasonable, right? Not to Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who said that "[u]nresolved factual disputes vitiate the judge's analysis." On summary judgment, a case is resolved when there are no facts in dispute, but Posner seemed to think quite a few facts were unresolved, including how much time Kauffman spent wheeling residents back and forth, which would dictate whether the nursing home could reasonably accommodate her. (It certainly didn't help the nursing home's argument that, in the period between when Kauffman quit and was replaced, the lone remaining hairdresser received help from other staff in wheeling residents back and forth, with no increased cost or decrease in the quality of other residents' care.)

You Keep Using That Word, But I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Posner continued piling on throughout, calling out the trial judge for dismissing Kauffman's estimate of the time she spent wheeling residents as "vague and inconclusive," yet crediting her boss' "implausible" estimate, which would have resulted in Kauffman "spending almost two-thirds of her entire workweek pushing wheelchairs back and forth."

The trial court was also quick to find that the employer fulfilled the ADA's requirement of an "interactive" process of determining accommodations. But that's far from what happened here. Kauffman asked for an accommodation and her supervisor said they couldn't do anything for her. The trial court made a lot of credibility determinations and resolved factual disputes -- the very things that undermine the need for summary judgment.

Judge Daniel Manion concurred in the judgment, but wrote separately to clarify that the percentage of time spent on a task isn't dispositive of whether that task is "essential." Manion also said that reassigning a job function to another employee isn't necessarily a reasonable accommodation; the fact that some of Kauffman's duties could be reassigned showed only that the reassignments was possible, not that it was a reasonable accommodation.

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