March 16, 2018

Did the Americans with Disabilities Act Compel the University of Minnesota to Accommodate Jerry Kill’s Leave of Absence?

By now, most Gopher fans are aware that University of Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill suffers from seizures as a result of his epilepsy.  His seizures have, at times, caused him to miss all or portions of football games.  In October 2013, Coach Kill took a leave of absence to focus on his health.

While various people have commented upon what the University or Coach Kill should have done, a legal question lurks just beneath the surface.  Specifically, was the University legally obligated to accommodate Coach Kill?

To answer this question, one must look to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.  Because the analysis is similar under both laws, this discussion will focus on the ADA.

Under the ADA, most employers with 15 or more employees must provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who suffers from a disability when doing so would allow the individual to perform the essential functions of his or her job, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship (meaning significant difficulty or expense) on the operations of the business.  Whether a particular accommodation would be reasonable and appropriate depends upon the specific facts of a situation.

There is no question that Coach Kill’s epilepsy would constitute a disability under the ADA.  Thus, the University was obligated to consider whether there was a reasonable accommodation that would allow Coach Kill to perform the essential functions of his job.

To determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists, an employer and an employee should ordinarily engage in an interactive process.  Reasonable accommodations may include such things as modifying equipment, altering a work schedule, restructuring the workplace, providing a leave of absence, and any number of other possibilities.  Based on publicly available information, the University’s athletic director and Coach Kill appear to have engaged in this interactive process and, ultimately, the decision was made to allow Coach Kill to take a leave of absence.

Practice Pointer:  Employers who are covered by the ADA should not jump to conclusions with regard to an employee who may need a work accommodation as a result of a disability.  Rather, employers should engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether there is an accommodation that would allow the employee to continue to perform the essential functions of his/her position.