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$20K deal for worker in perfume case

Ex-Champaign County employee filed challenges based on breathing issues.

A former Champaign County employee could receive a $20,000 settlement after she argued the county failed to accommodate her while she suffered from an allergy to perfume.

Pamela Core, a former social services worker for the Champaign County Department of Jobs and Family Services, will be paid the money as part of the tentative agreement. Core had complained that she suffered from asthma and a severe chemical sensitivity to certain perfumes and other scented products.

In return, Core will drop her claim against the county under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Core, hired in 2003, will also release the county from a separate civil lawsuit that is still pending against two former co-workers.

The civil case is separate, said John Gerboth, Core’s attorney. In that case, Core had argued two of her co-workers had intentionally worn Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, despite knowing it caused her to have an allergic reaction.

“I think we’re both satisfied with the settlement,” Gerboth said.

Frank Hatfield, an attorney who represented the county, declined to discuss the case because the settlement process is still ongoing.

According to court documents, Core filed a claim against the county under the Americans with Disabilities Act and also sought a disability claim because of her condition, which included an allergic reaction to some perfumes, including the Japanese Cherry Blossom fragrance. The U.S. District Court ultimately ruled in favor of the county. But the case was appealed and was settled after mediation.

Core had maintained her position as a social worker since 2003, but her healthcare provider informed the county that Core could only work in an environment that is “free of perfume,” according to court documents.

However, a decision by the U.S. District Court also showed Core sells jewelry at craft shows, where she could be exposed to perfume. The disability also did not prevent Core from shopping, eating at restaurants, attending college classes, wearing perfume or walking around her neighborhood, the court said.

Court documents show Core stopped physically reporting to work on March 31, 2010.

In April 2010, court documents show the county offered to allow Core to work shorter work days, as well as have her own office and private bathroom, but Core did not respond.

Core applied for leave from work under the Family Medical Leave Act in June 2010, and the county approved her request.

Core exhausted her Family Medical Leave Act time in September 2010. In December 2010, the county offered to allow Core to use an inhaler at work, and offered to allow her to take breaks to go outside for fresh air, but Core rejected the offer. The county also offered to post notices and request that its staff refrain from wearing the cherry blossom perfume, but Core rejected that offer.

She was placed on involuntary disability separation in February 2011, meaning she was no longer paid by the county.

In the court’s decision, Judge Timothy Black ruled in favor of the county. Among other issues, the court argued Core failed to prove the allergies significantly impacted her work.

Black wrote, “The suggestion that plaintiff was bullied in the workplace because of her sensitivities to Japanese Cherry Blossom is insufficient to establish a disability, at least in the absence of evidence that the resulting depression and anxiety substantially limited major life activity. Plaintiff makes no such showing in this case. With regard to asthma, plaintiff simply points to her asthma diagnosis and a single trip to the emergency room.”

The judge also wrote that although Core argued she should be allowed to work from home or in a fragrance-free workplace, neither were reasonable requests. The job required Core to input data into a state database that can only be accessed from the office, for example. The court also ruled it is impossible for the county to enforce a fragrance-free workplace, arguing it was also unnecessary since Core occasionally wears a certain perfume.

“DJFS offered to request staff not to wear Japanese Cherry Blossom, an accommodation specifically requested by plaintiff initially, and plaintiff failed to show that any other fragrance significantly affected her ability to breathe,” the court’s ruling said.

Champaign County commissioners approved the settlement last week, but Core has 21 days to consider it. The county will pay the amount through the County Risk Sharing Authority of Ohio, and the money will not come from the general fund. The risk fund is a liability insurance pool established by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

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