Do you ever lay up late at night thinking about deep employment law questions? Wow, that’s funny, so do I!

Here’s one for you: under the Americans with Disabilities Act, when we say that an accommodation requested by an employee is “unreasonable,” are we also saying that it creates an “undue hardship” for the employer? In other words, are the terms “unreasonable” and “undue hardship” synonymous? It isn’t unusual to hear people use the terms interchangeably.

While the terms are clearly interrelated, they are ultimately separate concepts under the ADA. Here’s a quick rundown:

The US Supreme Court defined “reasonable” as an accommodation that “seems reasonable on its face, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases” (U.S. Airways, Inc. V. Barnett, 2002). While the term has generated a lot of debate resulting in some ambiguity, the focus is on the basic and general feasibility of the accommodation requested.

In the U.S. Airways decision the court looked favorably upon a lower court ruling that stated that in order for the request to be “reasonable,” it must enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job and “on the face of things” appear to be feasible for the employer to implement. It is worth noting that it is the employee’s burden to prove reasonableness, and that the standard for proving reasonableness is generally low (i.e., it is usually not a demanding standard to meet).

Once the employee has proved reasonableness, the employer can then assert, “hey, once we look more closely at the specific job and the specific work environment we believe that an undue hardship exists” (Ok, maybe they won’t say “hey” to the court, but you know what I mean). Simply put, an undue hardship requires an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show that a specific reasonable accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. It is the employer’s burden to prove that an undue hardship exists and, unlike the reasonableness standard, it is a demanding/high standard to meet.

So, in a sense, we could say “reasonableness” is more of an initial and basic assessment of the general feasibility of the accommodation requested. Once the employee clears this fairly low hurdle, the employer then has the opportunity to say, “now, let’s take a closer look at the complications that arise once we try to implement the requested accommodation under the specific circumstances of the job in question,” in an attempt to clear the higher hurdle of undue hardship.

As with most things “ADA,” there are ongoing questions, ambiguities, debates, and conflicting positions taken by the courts and/or the EEOC regarding terms like “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship.” However, hopefully the above will give you a basic framework for understanding the difference between these important terms and how they interrelate.

As an employment attorney with nearly 30 years of experience, I present effective and engaging seminars and webinars for employers around the country. Please let me know if I can help you with your compliance training needs.

This material should not be construed as legal advice.