When Howard Shapiro, a 15-year city employee, became disabled in a work accident, he couldn't continue his paramedic job. So he made repeated requests for accommodations and identified several vacant positions that he was qualified to fill, including one he previously held.
But his city's policy on job transfers required employees to scan the bulletin board for open jobs and formally apply, something Shapiro never officially did. He sued, claiming the city violated the ADA. He claimed that by requesting an accommodation and transfer, he initiated an "interactive process," which the city ignored.
A federal appeals court sided with Shapiro and sent the case to trial. Reason: Employees don't have to apply for a position formally to set the interactive process in motion. (Shapiro v. Township of Lakewood, No. 01-3212, 3rd Cir., 2002)
Advice: When an employee seeks a job reassignment that clashes with company policy, use this two-step process the U.S. Supreme Court recently outlined in US Airways Inc. v. Barnett (YATL June 2002):
1. The employee should identify an accommodation or vacant job that's reasonable.
2. If he does, then the ball is in the employer's court to show that granting the accommodation would create an undue hardship.
Bottom line: Don't hide behind policy to avoid accommodations. Picky policies and rules, even if they seem disability-neutral, won't insulate you from your responsibility to try to reasonably accommodate disabled employees, even when those accommodations clash with policies that everyone else has to follow.