Strict Punctuality Policy May Violate ADA

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            The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that strict enforcement of a punctuality policy may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, unless punctuality is an essential job function. Holly v. Clairson Industries, LLC, 492 F.3d 1247 (11th Cir. 2007). The plaintiff, a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, worked for defendant for some 17 years before being terminated for tardiness. He claimed his lateness was disability related and that strict punctuality was not an essential job function. He further argued that the employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate his tardiness violated the ADA.

            During the first 15 years of his employment the company regulated attendance using a case by case approach. While Mr. Holly was periodically late he was permitted to make up any missed time during breaks or after regular hours. His job as a mold maker allowed him to work independently, and not as part of an integrated production line. His tardiness did not affect his job performance.

            The company then implemented a no fault attendance policy. Although Mr. Holly’s tardiness grew no worse, he was terminated under the new policy for missing a total of one hour and thirteen minutes over eighteen episodes. In twelve of the eighteen instances he was late by one minute or less.

            The court found that strict punctuality was a marginal, not essential, job function, and that short delays caused by tardiness did not impair the operation, or add cost. As such, a reasonable accommodation may include a flexible or modified work schedule where lost time can be made up during the course of the day. The court also noted that plaintiff had been allowed to make up time over a fifteen year period without any undue hardship on the company.

            Separately, the court rejected the company’s argument that plaintiff was treated no differently than other employees, and therefore suffered no discrimination. It reminded employers that the ADA specifically requires employers to treat disabled employees differently in some circumstances.

            This case highlights the need to carefully review job descriptions and essential job functions, and thoroughly think through requests for reasonable accommodation. Further, employers may not rely on claims of equal treatment to justify the rejection of a reasonable accommodation request.

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