Can an HR professional adequately perform her job duties if she’s unable to communicate verbally?  

A recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit examined that very question.

In Carlson v. City of Spokane, an HR analyst brought suit against her employer for violating the ADA. Here’s some background on that suit, courtesy of the folks at the The Employer Handbook:

Leave, accommodations and more

Liane Carlson suffered a stroke while working as an HR specialist for the City of Spokane. Following the stroke, Carlson went on leave and was granted a number of accommodations from the city. Then, Carlson’s doctor recommended that the company provide a number of additional accommodations such as a one-handed keyboard and speech recognition software — because Carlson had difficulty speaking after the stroke.

Even with the accommodation, the city was concerned Carlson couldn’t perform the essential functions of her job. So the city’s doctor’s recommended that Carlson be placed on a medical layoff for 60 days with the understanding that there would be a reevaluation of Carlson after that time period.

Carlson didn’t return to work after the 60-day period — or ever again. Instead, she filed an ADA lawsuit claiming the city failed to accommodate her disability.

Job description cited

For its part, the city had a pretty solid argument to explain its actions. Citing a combination of Carlson’s own job description and the past experience of other HR pros, it argued that verbal communication was an essential part of the HR Analyst job and that no reasonable accommodation(s) existed to enable Carlson to speak with others.

But Carlson disagreed with the city’s stance on verbal communication. According to her attorney:

Verbal communication is merely a physical requirement of her position and thus is not relevant to determining whether she is a qualified individual under the ADA … Effective verbal communications is more appropriately characterized as a qualification standard than an essential function of the position and thus is not necessary to determine whether she is a qualified individual under the ADA.

In other words, verbal communication is a simply a means of carrying out the essential functions of the job — and not an essential function in and of itself.

What the court said

The court decided that there was enough evidence for a jury to decide whether an HR specialist has to verbally communicate with his or her co-workers to perform the essential functions of the job.

Specifically, the court said:

Although Defendants have undoubtedly established that some degree of communication is necessary to carry out the essential functions of the HR Analyst position, the Court is not convinced verbal communication is the only means by which employees can effectively communicate. Rather, as Plaintiff [Carlson] contends, verbal communication might merely be considered a method by which the other essential functions explicitly listed in the job description are performed.

So what can HR pros take from this case? For one thing, there are no winners (at least from the employers’ vantage point), when a case goes to trial. Either the city will pay a fortunate to settle this suit out of court — or it’ll face a long, drawn out trial. Even though the company had a solid argument — along with its own doctor’s recommendations — to back up its decision, it could’ve gone a bit further. For one thing, it could’ve tried a little harder to work with the employees’ accommodation request, which could’ve prevented a lawsuit. Now the organization’s fate is in a jury’s hands.

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