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Carter v. Bennett: Federal Court Finds Employer Reasonably Accomodated Blind Employee

In Carter v. Bennett, the D.C. Circuit court held that the employer, a division of the federal government, did not assign a blind employee to a position in which reasonable accommodation was impossible, and that the employer reasonably accommodated the employee.

Carter was a blind employee at the Department of Education (DOE), where his responsibilities included transcribing printed matter into Braille. In 1980, Carter became part of the "Special Concerns" staff within the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). In 1981, he also became responsible for analyzing and answering correspondence directed to OCR from Congress and the public. In May 1981, Carter filed an EEO complaint alleging that DOE had not reasonably accommodated his handicap as required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In March 1982, Carter received a notice from his supervisor stating that his job performance and attitude were unsatisfactory and advising him that he had 30 days to improve or face termination. Four months later, Carter received a notice of "Decision to Remove." In June and July 1982, Carter filed three EEO complaints alleging DOE violated his civil rights by retaliating against him for filing his discrimination claim. In August 1982, Carter was terminated. In October 1985, he filed a suit concerning all four complaints. The district court found that DOE reasonably accommodated Carter, and that their reason for discharging him was non-discriminatory. Carter appealed.

The D.C. Circuit noted that the Rehabilitation Act requires federal employers to provide reasonable accommodation for the handicapped. The court cited EEOC regulations providing that an agency shall make reasonable accommodation to the known physical limitations of a qualified handicapped employee, unless it can demonstrate an undue hardship on the operation of its program. These regulations also state that "reasonable accommodation may include: . . . job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices . . . , provision of readers and interpreters, and other similar actions." The court noted that the initial burden is on the plaintiff to show that reasonable accommodation is possible. Once this is done, the employer must show an inability to accommodate.

In addressing whether reasonable accommodation was possible, the D.C. Circuit analyzed the nature of Carter's job. It found that to properly research and respond to correspondence directed toward him, Carter must have knowledge of civil rights statutes, regulations, and policy directives. The district court found that with the assistance of readers or other accommodations, a blind person would be able to perform these functions. The D.C. Circuit affirmed this finding as it was not clearly erroneous.

The D.C. Circuit also addressed whether DOE's accommodations were reasonable. The district court found that DOE provided Carter with readers, furnished special equipment and office space, and decreased his workload. The district court also found that the government is not obligated to provide the plaintiff with every accommodation he may request, but must provide accommodation that is necessary to enable him to perform the essential functions of his job. The D.C. Circuit approved these findings and held that the accommodations made by DOE enabled Carter to perform the duties of his job. The court also found that DOE was not required to provide Carter with the reader of his choice or with expensive computer equipment he requested. Further, the court found that DOE's rationale for terminating Carter was non-discriminatory and that DOE did not retaliate against Carter by terminating him.

Carter v. Bennett, 840 F.2d 63 (D.C. Cir. 1988).

NOTE: This case was decided under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide that Rehabilitation Act cases may be used for guidance under the ADA.