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This Smells Like a Lawsuit: Fragrance Sensitivity under ADA

An Illinois federal judge has rejected an employee’s disability discrimination lawsuit, in which the employee claimed her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her fragrance sensitivity as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). While employers have a legal duty to reasonably accommodate such a disability, this case highlights that there is a limit.

As noted in the U.S. District Court’s opinion in Alanis v. Metra, Plaintiff Elda Alanis had worked for the company for approximately ten years, when she experienced difficulty breathing in the workplace, and claimed not to be able to speak, and would only communicate via text message or on handwritten notes.
Alanis took FMLA leave and following a psychological evaluation, ultimately returned to the workplace with a diagnosis of fragrance sensitivity.  Among Alanis’s multiple accommodation requests was for “a fragrance-free workplace.”

In response, the company agreed to take actions to reduce workplace odors, which included changing the cleaning solutions in the restrooms, instructing staff to use only the approved cleaning solutions, instructing staff to refrain from wearing strong fragrances, and moving Alanis’s workspace to a cubicle farther away from the refrigerator and microwave (one source of the odors she was complaining about). Alanis also was instructed to promptly notify the company if any other fragrance issues arose.  The company also granted Alanis’s requests for a relaxed dress code, not having to talk while symptomatic, and rest breaks away from her work station, but did not agree to all the accommodations sought by Alanis.

In dismissing Alanis’s ADA failure to accommodate claim, the District Court noted that the ADA only requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee’s limitations, and employers are not required to provide the particular accommodation that an employee requests. Instead, the employer may choose what accommodation to provide, so long as it effectively accommodates the employee’s limitations.  The District Court held the company’s accommodations in regard to Alanis were reasonable:

Once Metra learned that the changes it made to accommodate Alanis did not eliminate her symptoms, Metra invited Alanis to notify it of any odor issues contemporaneously so that the source could be investigated. When Alanis did report an issue, Thomas intervened on Alanis’s behalf and reminded the relevant staff member of the fragrance-free workplace requirement. The record shows that Metra made reasonable efforts to provide (and police where necessary) the accommodations it agreed to provide Alanis. That Metra could not guarantee a fragrance-free environment for Alanis does not constitute an adverse action.

The District Court’s ruling is in line with similar cases around the county in which ADA claims were dismissed because an employee’s request for a fragrance-free or odorless workplace was held to be unreasonable and not feasible.

Fragrance or odor sensitivity clearly qualifies as disability. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission takes the position that under the ADA, an employee may be disabled if a workplace odor causes asthma or causes an otherwise normal reaction or allergy to become severe.  Finding a reasonable and realistic accommodation is best accomplished through engaging in an interactive discussion with the employee.

  • Depending on the position and job responsibilities, allowing the employee to telecommute or work from home might be a reasonable accommodation.
  • For employees who are sensitive to certain workplace odors, changing their workplace/office locations to an area of less exposure could be a reasonable accommodation. Workplace odors triggering a medical condition also may be more generalized, such as the odors from copy machines or printers or from cleaning products.
  • A perfume/cologne free policy can be a reasonable accommodation. While other employees may find it unreasonable, wearing perfume or cologne in the workplace is not a protected right.
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About Mark Fijman

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Mark Fijman specializes in labor and employment issues relating to the restaurant and hospitality industry, including Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") compliance. He is an attorney in the Labor and Employment Section of law firm Phelps Dunbar, LLP’s Jackson, Mississippi office. He can be contacted at (601) 360-9716 or FijmanM@Phelps.com.

Fijman represents and advises employers regarding federal and state employment laws dealing with race, age, disability, gender, national origin and religious discrimination and in administrative proceedings before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His practice includes representing employers seeking to enforce non-competition/non-solicitation agreements and pursuing injunctive relief for improper use of proprietary information.He routinely counsels on issues ranging from overtime questions to discipline and termination decisions. Direct phone: (601) 360-9716.  Phelps Dunbar, LLP has offices in New Orleans, LA, Baton Rouge, LA, Houston, TX, Tampa, FL, Mobile, AL, Raleigh, NC, Jackson, MS, Gulfport, MS, Tupelo, MS and London, England.

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