Federal court: Nursing home can be sued for firing hairdresser who can no longer push wheelchair

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Is the ability to transport residents in their wheelchairs an essential function of a nursing home hairdresser? A federal appeals court says it's a valid question and is allowing a hairdresser to sue a facility that fired her.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said that Debra Kauffman's claim that she was discriminated against may move forward. The Oct. 16 ruling reversed a lower court's summary decision in favor of Mason Point, of Sullivan, IL, and remanded the case for trial.

Kauffman asked for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act after she had a hysterectomy, saying she could no longer push residents in wheelchairs to the salon.

Rolling patients around won't be considered an essential part of Kauffman's job if it could be done cheaply enough by another employee, the Seventh Circuit wrote in its opinion, which was supported by judges Richard A. Posner and Diane P. Wood.

A core disagreement is how much time is needed to wheel patients. Kauffman estimated 6% to 12% of her shift, while administration at the 122-bed facility said 60% to 65%. The lower court ruled that wheeling patients is an essential part of the job and that no reasonable accommodation could be made. Posner, however, called the administrator's estimate “way off base” and also noted that other employees were able to cover Kauffman's duties while a replacement for her was sought.

Doctors inserted a mesh lining into Kauffman's abdomen during her surgery, which caused her to miss eight weeks of work. A doctor warned her against physical exertion, including wheeling patients around, that could tear the mesh.

The facility administrator is alleged to have told Kauffman that Mason Point doesn't allow workers with restrictions. Kauffman offered to work full-time in the laundry room or have someone else take the residents to the salon, but the administrator reportedly dismissed the ideas. Kauffman's employment at Mason Point began 33 years ago, when she was a hairdresser and laundry department assistant.