Employment-Third Circuit Rules That Employers Could Be Required To Accommodate A Disabled Employee’s Commuting Difficulties Under The ADA

In Colwell v. Rite Aid Corporation, No. 08-4675 (3rd Circuit 2010), the plaintiff, Jeanette Colwell, a former part-time retail clerk at a Rite Aid store in Pennsylvania, appealed the district court’s summary judgment against her in her suit claiming disability discrimination.

The plaintiff had been diagnosed with “retinal vein occlusion and glaucoma in her left eye,” and eventually became blind in that eye. Due to her blindness, the plaintiff asked to be assigned to the day shift, so she would not have to drive to or from work at night. However, Rite Aid continued to schedule the plaintiff for a mixture of day and night shifts. The plaintiff then resigned, and filed this lawsuit against Rite Aid, listing, among other claims, a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) for failure to accommodate the plaintiff’s partial blindness.

In addressing the plaintiff’s ADA claim, the Court found that the plaintiff was “disabled”, within the meaning of the ADA. The question then became whether Rite Aid had a duty to accommodate her shift request. Rite Aid’s the position (accepted by the district court) was that employers are not required to accommodate the inability to commute to work independently, because commuting falls outside the work environment. However, the Court disagreed, and held that, as a matter of law, changing the plaintiff’s working schedule to day shifts in order to alleviate her disability-related difficulties in getting to work is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates. A jury must decide whether a shift change was a reasonable accommodation, and does not impose undue hardship in this particular case. As such, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the plaintiff as to Rite Aid’s failure to accommodate plaintiff’s disability, and remanded the case for further proceedings.