In a case that automatically vaults to the top of important disability discrimination cases in Connecticut, the Connecticut Supreme Court today held, in an issue of first impression, that employers have a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled workers under state law, even though the law does not explicitly say so. 

While the Americans with Disabilities Act applied this rule to employers under federal law for employers of 15 or more employees, small employers have been exempt from it, leaving workers only with the protection of a vague state law (Conn. Gen. Stat. 46a-60(a)(1)) prohibiting "physical disability" discrimination. 

The case, Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc., was released earlier today, although practitioners are cautioned that it is not "officially" released until April 15, 2008. 

Although the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has applied this rule for years to their view of cases, the Connecticut Supreme Court had yet to decide the issue, leaving employers (to which the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply) with the thorny question of whether or not they had an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation.  Certainly, some did; but others may not. 

The court’s rationale is fascinating and I’ll explore it more in upcoming posts.  Although the Connecticut statute was put in place almost two decades, the court said it was appropriate to still look to federal law for guidance. Since the reasonable accommodation requirement appeared in federal law, it was appropriate — in part — to add it here. There’s more to the decision, of course, and I’ll recap more later.

While the decision itself should be one that employers can follow, what’s fascinating is that the Court has ignored various bills that have been proposed over the years at the legislature to add reasonable accommodation language to the statute.  After all, if the legislature "thought" such a requirement was already there and that was its "intent", why are there bills proposing adding such language?

For example, a 2004 bill would have changed the definition of "physical disability" to mirror the language.  A 2002 Senate bill called "the Preservation of Disability Rights" would have introduced language of a "qualified individual with a disability" that would have required reasonable accommodation. 

I’m not suggesting that its bad policy to add this; that’s up to the legislature and/or the courts. But it seems a stretch to add a "reasonable accommodation" requirement to state law, when legislature never thought it important enough to do so itself. 

The Court then applies federal reasonable accommodation provisions (such as the interactive process) to the case at hand.  It also addresses the issue regarding light duty accommodation and what an undue hardship is.  I’ll explore these provisions in future posts as well.

Until then, the case should be required reading for small employers in the state and their attorneys.