Favorite Firing: A Smelly Case

???????????Sometimes, an employer can bend over backwards to accommodate an employee and still be sued. In Kaufmann v. GMAC Mortgage Corporation, a 2007 Third Circuit case, the employer’s many good deeds were still punished with a lawsuit.

The Facts:  The plaintiff, Linda Kaufmann, started work for GMAC Mortgage Corporation in an office position in June 2002. She had severe allergies and complained about the perfumes and cosmetics that her co-workers (who all worked in a common area with her) wore.

According to the opinion issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in the first three months after Ms. Kaufmann began working for GMAC, her managers took the following actions:

  • They asked her co-workers to refrain from wearing perfume.
  • They spoke to specific employees whom she alleged were wearing perfume.
  • They moved her desk.
  • They changed the air filters in the office area.
  • They gave her a personal air filter and fan for her desk.
  • When she complained about a specific employee, they talked to that employee, and again reminded employees not to wear perfume.
  • They implemented a “perfume free zone.”
  • They moved her desk again to a more isolated area.

When Ms. Kaufmann continued to complain about smelling perfume, they again talked to a co-worker who was allegedly wearing perfume, though the manager could not smell anything.

In September 2002, GMAC granted Ms. Kaufmann twelve weeks of leave, even though she had not worked for GMAC long enough to be eligible for leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act.

Ms. Kaufmann returned to work in December 2002, and GMAC again reminded employees on several occasions not to wear perfume.

When Ms. Kaufmann continued to miss work, GMAC fired her in May 2003 – still less than a year after started work.

Several months after her termination, she sued GMAC. The federal district court granted GMAC’s motion for summary judgment, finding that GMAC had adequately accommodated Ms. Kaufmann’s disability. The Third Circuit affirmed in July 2007 – over five years after Ms. Kaufmann started work.

Thus, Ms. Kaufmann worked for GMAC for about eleven months, and they were in litigation with her for three-and-a-half years.

The Moral: As someone who becomes uncomfortable around strong perfumes, colognes, and certain pollens, I was sympathetic to Ms. Kaufmann’s complaints, though I have never thought of myself as disabled as a result of my sensitivities. There was some question whether Ms. Kaufmann’s allergy was a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the courts assumed it was a disability, and dealt with the reasonableness of the employer’s attempts at accommodation.

It is hard to see what more GMAC could have done for her. Certainly, GMAC spent a great deal of time accommodating Ms. Kaufmann’s allergy, yet she was not satisfied. She apparently wanted a “perfectly-sealed environment,” according to the Third Circuit, which the Court said was not possible.

The Court said:

“Kaufmann argues that GMAC failed to accommodate reasonably because its perfume-free policy was not adequately enforced – people wearing products with scents came into contact with Kaufmann at work.

Kaufmann seems to claim that GMAC should have provided an absolutely odor-free environment in order to accommodate her but Kaufmann does not explain how it would be possible to create such a perfectly-sealed environment.”

The Court listed the many actions GMAC had taken to improve the air quality in the workplace, and specifically around Ms. Kaufmann’s work area, and concluded that GMAC met any obligations it had to accommodate Kaufmann’s allergies.

All that can be said about accommodation from this case is that GMAC did enough. We don’t know what lesser measures might have been adequate.

There are many situations in which an employee’s health complaints may or may not be disabilities. This case demonstrates how important it is to take every request for accommodation seriously, even when the employer isn’t certain whether the employee is disabled under the ADA.

When an employer thinks it has done enough, it should do something more before terminating the employee. And, if termination does result, the employer should still expect to be sued.


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Filed under Human Resources, Law, Management, Workplace

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