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Perfume Sensitivity and the ADA

Posted by Frank Steinberg | Jul 09, 2007 | 0 Comments

Michael Moore at the Pennsylvania Employment Law Blog has an interesting post asking whether sensitivity to perfume is an ADA Claim or Office Nonsense.  The post links to an article about a woman in Detroit who recently filed suit against her employer claiming that her sensitivity to perfume constitutes a disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a slip opinion filed on July 5, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit addressed that question.  The case is Kaufmann v. GMAC Mortgage.  For the moment it appears that perfume sensitivity that causes an allergic reaction can be defined as a disability for purposes of the ADA.  The more interesting question is what an employer must do to reasonably accommodate an employee who claims such a disability. 

When Kaufmann complained of difficulty in breathing, faintness, and nosebleeds — which her doctor attributed to environmental irritants — GMAC promptly decided to institute a "perfume free environment" to accommodate her.  In addition, GMAC moved her desk, changed air filters, and as required reminded other employees that they should not wear perfume in the office.

Kaufmann continued to complain about other employees wearing perfume, although they denied doing so.  Eventually Kaufmann's attendance became erratic and she was terminated.

Both the trial and appellate courts assumed that Kaufmann's sensitivity to perfume could constitute a disability but did not directly decide the issue.  Rather, the courts held that GMAC  reasonably accommodated  Kaufmann.

So was Kaufmann's case office nonsense or an ADA claim?  Well, you have to conclude that it was a claim.  (Although a lot of people might dismiss the notion of a perfume allergy as nonsense.)  The courts continue to interpret the ADA broadly, consistent with what they perceive to be the intent of Congress.  But you also have to conclude that the court here understood that GMAC had done all that it reasonably could for Kaufmann.

But what of the personal rights of the other employees?  Don't they have a right to wear perfume in the office?  The line between statutory rights and personal rights in the workplace will continue to be defined largely on a case-by-case basis.  Smart employers will take seriously all complaints and attempt to resolve them with proactive action.  GMAC's handling of the Kaufmann situation is a good example to follow. 

About the Author

Frank Steinberg

Frank is the founder and principal of Steinberg Law, LLC. A Jersey boy born and bred, he focuses on employment litigation and counseling, business litigation,  and aviation law. Following law school and a clerkship in the federal district court Frank spent his early career with large litigation ...

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