A federal court in Arkansas found that even if a request by an employee with a fragrance sensitivity for a mandatory scent-free workplace was not reasonable, other reasonable accommodations in the workplace could be plausible. In Rotkowski v. Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, a federal district court examined an employer’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by an employee with fragrance sensitivities. That employee had medically documented sensitivity to certain fragrances and chemicals. Exposure to those fragrances caused severe head pain, nausea, breathing difficulties and fatigue, along with other adverse physical reactions.
The employer initially responded by implementing a no-perfume policy, setting up an air purifier in the office’s common area and; further, by sending a letter to its clients requesting that they not wear perfume or cologne when they came to the office. However, when a co-worker complained about that policy, the employer overturned it. The employer moved the air purifier it had placed in the common area into the employee’s office. It also denied the employee’s request for a combination fax, scanner and copier to be placed in the employee’s office so she would not have to frequent common areas and risk exposure to the fragrances in question. The court rejected the employee’s contention that she was entitled to a fragrance-free workplace. However, it found that a jury could determine that the employee’s other requests for accommodation, namely placing the air purifier back in the common area and providing the combination office machine could be plausible. Thus, it ordered that the lawsuit should proceed.
The court’s holding is interesting, since it held that a fragrance sensitivity could constitute a disability. That finding is consistent with rulings handed down subsequent to the recent amendment of the Americans with Disabilities Act which greatly broadened the definition of what constitutes a “disability.” Second, it illustrates that even if an employee’s main accommodation request is denied, the employer’s obligations under the law to consider additional reasonable accommodations does not end. It is the obligation of the company to explore all reasonable accommodations, especially if alternatives are presented by an employee.