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First Circuit Denies Reasonable Accommodation to Employee Robbed at Gun Point at Work

Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On April 30, 2018, in Sépulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, the First Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico’s dismissal of Victor Sépulveda-Vargas’s reasonable accommodation claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Mr. Sépulveda, an assistant manager at Caribbean Restaurants LLC (“Caribbean”), which operates Burger King restaurants in Puerto Rico, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after he was attacked at gunpoint, hit over the head, and had his car stolen while making a bank deposit on behalf of Caribbean Restaurants.

Caribbean Restaurants schedules its managers so that they rotate among three work shifts: 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; and 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.  After he was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, Mr. Sépulveda requested that Caribbean provide him with a fixed work schedule—that is, he asked Caribbean to assign him to one specific timeslot consistently—as a reasonable accommodation for his disabilities.  While Caribbean initially agreed to the accommodation, it later told Mr. Sépulveda that he would have to resume working rotating shifts, which prompted Mr. Sépulveda to resign.  According to Caribbean, the rotating shifts were necessary for the equal distribution of work among the managerial staff.  Mr. Sépulveda sued, alleging that Caribbean failed to reasonably accommodate him.

At the close of discovery, Caribbean moved for summary judgment.  The district court considered several factors, including the employer’s judgment as to what functions of the job were essential, written job descriptions, and other similarly situated workers’ experiences. Here, Mr. Sépulveda had admitted that rotating shifts were one of his job responsibilities and this was the case for all other assistant managers; the job application that Mr. Sépulveda filled out and signed when he was hired made clear that all Caribbean managerial employees had to be able to work shifts in different restaurants; and a newspaper advertisement for the assistant manager job listed the ability to work rotating shifts as a requirement.

And, while Caribbean did initially grant Mr. Sépulveda the fixed-shift accommodation on a temporary basis, it had not conceded that the ability to work rotating shifts was a nonessential function, said the court, reasoning that to “find otherwise would unacceptably punish employers from [sic] doing more than the ADA requires, and might discourage such an undertaking on the part of employers.”  The court ultimately concluded that no reasonable finder of fact could have found that the ability to work rotating shifts was not an essential job function under the circumstances and, because Mr. Sépulveda could not work them, that he was a qualified individual under the ADA.

The First Circuit reluctantly agreed with the district court, finding that, although Mr. Sépulveda’s circumstances were “sympathetic,” permanently accommodating Mr. Sépulveda would have had the adverse impact of inconveniencing all other assistant managers who would have to work unwanted shifts in response to his fixed schedule.  “The law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on [your] side,” said the court.

If you believe that your employer has discriminated against you on the basis of your disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

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