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Employment Blog

Duty to Accommodate Pre-Existing Conditions of an Employee?

Authored by Dean R. Dietrich
Posted on August 22, 2014
Filed under Employment

There has always been a question whether an employer is required to provide accommodations to an employee who has suffered an injury that impacts the employee's ability to work when the injury occurred before the employee was hired. These types of injuries are called pre-existing injuries or pre-existing conditions and many employers believe they do not have to accommodate an employee for a condition that occurred prior to commencing employment. A recent decision from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Wisconsin) held that the Company was required to accommodate an employee for an injury that occurred prior to employment.

In this decision, the employee suffered from chronic back injuries caused by a previous workplace injury with another employer. The Company did not consider any request by the employee to stop performing certain work duties because they aggravated his chronic back problem. The employee was ultimately terminated and filed a complaint for discrimination based upon a disability and for retaliation because of terminating the employee while the employee was off of work due to the chronic back problem. At trial, the jury found for the employee and awarded a verdict of $115,000 in back pay, $100,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages against the Company. The Company was found responsible for punitive damages because the Company did not follow its established procedure for handling employee accommodation requests.

The important aspect of this decision however, is that the Company was held responsible for accommodating the injury/back problem of the employee even though the employee came to the job with that pre-existing back problem. Employers must be careful when reviewing the duty to accommodate an employee with a disability even if the disability results from an injury or medical problem experienced prior to employment with the Company.