As the City of Detroit is learning, discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act may not result from your typical disabilities. Susan McBride, a city employee, filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2007, claiming the City violated her rights under the ADA by failing to accommodate her chemical sensitivity. Ms. McBride claimed a life-long chemical sensitivity to scented substances such as perfume, body lotion, aftershave, cologne, hand cream, hair spray, deodorant, and various cleaning compounds. Exposure to these and other irritants caused headaches, nausea, chest tightness, cough, and rhinitis and required her to seek medical care. When a coworker refused to quit wearing perfume Ms. McBride complained to her supervisor and requested the City implement and enforce a “no-scent policy” as an accommodation to her chemical sensitivity. The City denied her request and offered no alternative accommodation.

A disability determination under the ADA (now updated and revised as the ADAAA) is to be made on a case-by-case basis. The City of Detroit filed a motion to dismiss Ms. McBride’s case in 2007, but the motion was denied. (pdf) Recently, the City of Detroit settled out of court with Ms. McBride for $100,000. It will also be putting up signs warning workers to avoid wearing scented products. Because the case was settled, it is not possible to say if her chemical sensitivity would be considered a disability under the ADA or ADAAA.

What do employers need to take away from this case? A few things spring to mind:

(1) Take employee complaints seriously.
(2) Address issues promptly to avoid unnecessary costs later.
(3) Consider if a policy might fix a problem.