Valle-Arce v. Puerto Rico Ports Authority, No. 10-1102 (1 st Cir. July 8, 2011

Plaintiff Maritza Valle-Arce claimed that her employer, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority (Authority), violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) when the Authority failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disabilities and retaliated against her, including by terminating her employment, for engaging in protected activities.

 

Valle worked at the Authority from June 1990 until her termination on July 24, 2007. Valle was first diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) in 2000, and first requested workplace accommodations that year.  She submitted a report from her physician that described her symptoms as typical of CFS, including insomnia that usually kept her from sleeping more than four hours a night, joint and muscle pain and weakness, and headaches, varying in severity over time. The physician suggested Valle's work schedule be adjusted to begin at 9:00 a.m., instead of the Authority's standard 7:30 a.m. start time to accommodate the difficulty Valle's insomnia caused her in arriving at work on time. The internal evaluation process for Valle's request dead-ended after Valle objected to the specific psychiatrist the Authority had suggested to evaluate her.

In October 2006 Valle made a request for reasonable accommodation. Five months passed with the agency taking no action on Valle's October 2006 request for reasonable accommodation. Eventually, on March 19, 2007, after she had received a March 8, 2007 letter of intent to terminate, Valle filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging discrimination and retaliation by the Authority. The very next day, with no additional medical examination or administrative procedure, the Director of the Ports Authority partly granted her accommodation request, fixing her work schedule from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. She was granted her request for a shorter lunch period, accompanied by two fifteen-minute rest breaks during the day, as well as the requests she had made for temperature control and reduced walking distances. She was not granted any of the flexibility she had requested as to a range of entry times or the ability to work fewer hours one day by making the hours up during other days of the same week.

A jury spent seven days hearing the plaintiff's evidence, including hearing testimony from the plaintiff, a co-worker, and an expert witness, a psychiatrist. In a short oral ruling, based on an oral motion, the district court granted the Authority's motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of Valle's case-in-chief. 

In vacating the judgment and remanding the case to the district court, the Appeals Court held that the district court judge erred by holding that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability. The Authority did not dispute Valle’s disability status but argued that job attendance was an essential function of her job. However, the First Circuit held that the record presented a fact issue on this question based on the history of the reasonable accommodations. 

The Appeals Court also held that there was a genuine issue of material fact on whether the delay in readjusting the Valle’s schedule deprived her of a reasonable accommodation.  During the hearing, Valle provided testimony “to ways in which the Ports Authority did not follow its normal reasonable accommodations procedure in her case, where the agency delayed months after even the 2006 request, and where the rigid 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. schedule eventually granted was not what she sought and arguably did not reasonably accommodate Valle's condition.” 

Thus, the Appeals Court rejected the district court’s holding that Valle had failed to prove that the Authority knew of her disability and did not reasonably accommodate it.  As articulated by the Appeals Court, “the district court reasoned, without reference to any of the evidence Valle had presented, that because the Ports Authority eventually granted Valle a flexible schedule, and because the ADA does not specify a time period within which employers must grant accommodations, the Ports Authority had not denied Valle reasonable accommodation.

Lessons Learned:  Delays in providing reasonable accommodation to employees who are disabled as defined by the ADA can result in liability under the ADA.  Furthermore, reasonable accommodation can take the form of flexible work schedules.  Employers should also ensure that supervisors are familiar with the law regarding reasonable accommodation. 

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