Hold on to your seat: Workers who can't sit may be protected

Employers are beginning to understand that workers with sedentary jobs have a difficult time standing or sitting for long periods of time, regardless of whether they have a disability. Indeed, few people can sit or stand for hours on end without genuine discomfort. As a result, many companies schedule employees' breaks around their need to move.

However, sometimes employers must do more, depending on the extent of employees' discomfort. Read on to learn what happened when a company failed to realize that an employee's inability to sit for a long time could be considered a disability requiring a reasonable accommodation.


Carmen Parada worked as a senior letters of credit specialist for Banco Industrial de Venezuela, C.A. (BIV). The position was mostly sedentary and involved organizing credit applications, ensuring that documents complied with various standards, and issuing credit letters. Parada regularly worked more than 40 hours per week.

Six months after taking the job, Parada fell on a sidewalk and hurt her back so severely that she could not sit for long periods of time. As a result, she was required to stand for portions of the workday and apply ice to her neck and back. After diagnosing her with lumbosacral and cervical sprains and herniated disks, Parada's doctors directed her to avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time.

A simple request goes unheeded

After her diagnosis, Parada requested an ergonomic chair from BIV and even offered to pay for the chair, but her efforts were to no avail. There was no dispute that an ergonomic chair could have helped Parada continue to work. Approximately six months after she made her request, she informed BIV that she couldn't continue working without a better chair. An operations manager assured her that he would discuss the matter with her after he returned from a trip. That was the last straw for Parada. Not happy with the manager's response, she complained that BIV failed to accommodate her disability and stated that she needed to take a leave of absence without providing a return date.

For several months, Parada and BIV discussed the seriousness of her disability, the duration of her leave, and the employer's repeated requests for additional documentation of her disability, including proof that she needed to be absent from work. Parada responded with a medical report stating that her neck and back injuries prevented her from "prolonged sitting." Her orthopedist recommended that BIV provide her with an ergonomic chair, permit her to take frequent breaks throughout the day, and allow her to obtain short"term disability benefits.

'We aren't going to provide a chair'

After Parada's short-term disability benefits expired, she applied for long-term disability benefits. Her application was denied, and she was terminated by BIV for failing to return to work and not providing documentation for her absence. She sued BIV for, among other things, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). In essence, Parada claimed that BIV discriminated and retaliated against her by denying her requests for a reasonable accommodation and firing her.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed all of Parada's federal claims and declined to hear the remaining state and local claims. In dismissing her disability discrimination claims, the district court held that her inability to sit for long periods of time did not constitute a disability under the ADA. Parada then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit (whose rulings apply to all New York employers).

Not so fast!

The 2nd Circuit did not agree with the district court's decision. The appeals court found that the district court erroneously dismissed Parada's discrimination claims against BIV. The 2nd Circuit noted that as part of a prima facie (minimally sufficient) case, an employee must prove that she is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

Before the 2008 amendments to the ADA, the Act defined "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of [an] individual." Even before the amendments, the 2nd Circuit ruled that an impairment substantially limits a major life activity if an individual is "significantly restricted as to the condition, manner or duration under which [she] can perform" the activity.

Armed with that analysis of the law, the 2nd Circuit rejected the district court's reasoning that "an impairment which limits the ability to sit for long periods of time is not recognized as a substantial limitation. [Therefore,] Parada is not disabled pursuant to the ADA." The 2nd Circuit concluded that the district court misinterpreted previous court rulings that held that an employee's problems with sitting at work did not constitute a disability.

The 2nd Circuit clarified that there is no rule that states that an employee can be considered disabled only if she cannot sit at all (as opposed to having problems with sitting). In fact, the real lesson from previous court rulings was that an employee's "vague statements" about her condition could not establish a violation of the ADA. According to the court, an employee who has difficulty sitting could have a disability even if she is not precluded from sitting all the time. The court reasoned that holding otherwise would conflict with previous rulings in which the court rejected bright-line (clear-cut) tests and required fact-specific inquiries.

In light of the fact that an inability to sit for long periods of time may be a disability under certain circumstances, the 2nd Circuit threw out the district court's decision and sent Parada's ADA discrimination claims back to the lower court. In other words, the appeals court told the district court to determine whether the evidence established a question of fact regarding whether Parada's inability to sit for long periods of time constituted a substantial limitation of a major life activity. Parada v. Banco Industrial de Venezuela, 2nd Cir., Mar. 25, 2014.

Bottom line

There are a lot of lessons from this case. First, ADA cases are fact- specific, and employers should gather as much information as they can before deciding not to accommodate an employee. In this case, the 2nd Circuit found that depending on the circumstances, Parada's condition may qualify as a disability under the ADA. In fact, it probably does qualify under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). The case will come down to the nature and extent of Parada's inability to sit for prolonged periods.

The other takeaway from this case is that employers often get so caught up in day-to-day operations that they can't see the forest for the trees. Parada made a simple request for an ergonomic chair, but BIV did not even respond to her request in a timely fashion. If it had, perhaps she would not have pursued a legal remedy.

Even if BIV ultimately prevails, providing Parada with a reasonable accommodation would have made economic sense, regardless of whether she is disabled. Perhaps it would have made a hard-working employee (remember, Parada routinely worked more than 40 hours per week) feel valued, and it would have avoided a costly lawsuit. Keep this case in mind the next time an employee asks you for an accommodation. Remember, sometimes it's better to be safe than sorry.