The Cost of an accommodation does not make it unreasonable – even if the cost is $120K

In two recent federal decisions (Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hospital – Maryland — and Smith v. Loudoun County Public Schools – Virginia), two different federal district courts have confirmed a long-standing position — hiring a full-time American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for a deaf employee may be a reasonable accommodation, even if doing so comes at great expense to the employer.

Searls v. Johns Hopkins Hospital

In Searls, the plaintiff was a deaf nurse who had attended the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.  During her time as a student, the nursing school had provided the plaintiff with a full-time ASL interpreter when she was working her clinical placements at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Following her completion of the program, the plaintiff was offered a full-time position at the hospital. Upon receipt of the offer, the plaintiff requested that the hospital provide her with a full-time ASL interpreter, which would cost the hospital $120,000 per year. The hospital refused to provide the requested accommodation (citing the cost of the accommodation as an undue hardship) and rescinded the offer. The plaintiff filed a disability discrimination lawsuit.

When arguing in Court, the hospital argued that the plaintiff’s requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship because the hospital had no money in its budget to make reasonable accommodations; therefore, to fund the accommodation, it would have to lay off two full-time nurses. This created an undue hardship.

The Court did not agree. Instead, the Court found that the size of the hospital’s budget for reasonable accommodations is “an irrelevant factor in assessing undue hardship.” Instead, the Court looked at the hospital’s operational budget of $1.7 billion and commented that a $120,000 accommodation constituted only 0.007% of that budget.

Smith v. Loudoun County Public Schools

In Smith, the plaintiff was a deaf teacher of special education for the hearing impaired. The plaintiff had requested that her employer provide her with a full-time ASL interpreter to assist her with her interaction with school administrators, teachers, staff members, parents, and students who don’t know ASL. (Prior to this request, the school was providing an on-call ASL interpreter, but the plaintiff claimed that the on-call interpreters were unreliable).

The school denied the plaintiff’s request for accommodation, stating that providing an on-call interpreter was sufficient accommodation. The school also claimed that providing a full-time interpreter would pose an undue hardship – based on the expense of providing an interpreter.

The Court rejected both of the school’s arguments.

With respect to the sufficiency of the accommodation, the Court found that the on-call interpreters did not fulfill the need for daily, verbal communication because those interpreters had to be requested between 3 and 7 days in advance.

With respect to the undue hardship, the school failed to provide any evidence relating to its operational budget and merely claimed that it had no budget allocated for this type of expense.

The Court was not persuaded. Like in Searls, the Court found that the fact that the school had no budget allocated for this expense was irrelevant, and quoted the Searls Court stating “even if it is correct that the salary of a full-time ASL interpreter would be twice the salary of a nurse, that in itself does not establish that an ASL interpreter would be an undue hardship.”

Take Home for Employers:

The case reminds employers, when it comes to undue burden, the court is looking to the entire operations of the entity. As such, if an employer is claiming that the cost of an accommodation is causing an undue burden, the employer must be prepared to provide specific evidence relating to their claims of undue hardship.  Unfortunately, as evidenced by these two cases, Courts are likely to find that the amount budgeted by an employer to cover ADA accommodations is irrelevant to determine undue hardship. Instead, the court are more likely to look at the comparison of the cost in relation to the size of the overall operational budget, which can make it difficult to prove undue hardship for a large organization.