Brigid Ford worked as a Sheriff's Deputy for 12 years when a car ran a red light and smashed into her patrol car. After a year of light-duty, her injuries mean she still couldn't use her right hand totally and had ongoing pain. In other words, not the best condition for a police officer.

The Sheriff's department offered her three choices: 

1. A civilian job at a lower rate of pay with accommodations for her disability.

2. Resignation.

3. Termination.

Ford chose the demotion and then sued, saying that it was a violation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The 7th Circuit noted that this was a reasonable application of the law and that in this case, a demotion was a reasonable accommodation.

This is not a standard application

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you need to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee, and to do that, you need to go through the "interactive process." This means that you go back and forth until you come to a reasonable solution. In this case, Ford's disability prevented her from doing the original job as a Sheriff's Deputy even with accommodations.

Many jobs could be done with proper accommodations, and Ford requested a "hands-free telephone, voice-activated software for her computer, an ergonomic work station, the ability to take breaks when needed to alleviate her pain, and training for her supervisors." She received all of these except the voice-activated software. This allowed her to do a civilian job.

The thing that makes this a border-line case is that this job was a demotion from her regular position, but the court determined that, in this case, this was reasonable.

Don't start demoting disabled employees

Before you tell your HR team that Meyer said it's cool to accommodate employees with disabilities by demoting them, check this out. The court noted that if an employee with a disability can show that she qualified for a vacant position that more closely matched her previous job (i.e., maybe a lateral move with no reduction in pay or benefits), the ADA would have obliged the employer to offer it to her.

This is a last resort kind of accommodation, but if that's the case, it is allowable under this ruling. Sheriff's deputies have certain physical obligations that many other jobs do not have. And you don't have to take an employee's word for it that they have a disability--you can require documentation from their physician. (This wasn't an issue in this case.)

Remember to go above and beyond

The Sheriff's office gave Ford a year of light-duty and worked with her on accommodations. This is a good pattern for you to follow. Try to figure out a solution before taking a move that results in a worse job, lowered pay, or both. Ford was a long term employee, and that knowledge is hard to replace.

Nevertheless, there are times when you can't accommodate someone enough for them to perform the critical functions of the job. And in this case, a demotion was reasonable. Double-check with your employment attorney before you make a similar decision in your company. You want to make sure you treat everyone legally and fairly.

Published on: Dec 4, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.