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Before starting ADA accommodations process, ask basic question: Is this employee disabled?

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Finding a reasonable accommodation is a two-way street. Both the employer and the disabled employee are supposed to engage in the ADA’s interactive accommodations process. The idea: Working together, the two can reach a workable accommodation that best suits both business needs and the employee’s particular disability.

But part of that interactive process includes determining whether the employee is, in fact, disabled. If he’s not, the process need go no further.

That’s why the process should start with gathering facts from the em­­ployee and his doctors so you can assess the employee’s condition and determine if it impairs a major life function such as walking, talking, seeing, breathing and caring for oneself.

The report may surprise you. While an employee may think of his condition as disabling, medical specialists may not. If the doctors don’t think the employee’s condition impairs a major life function, you needn’t go further. The employee isn’t covered by the ADA because he’s not disabled.

Recent case: Rommel Griffin worked for UPS for 28 years, mostly as a supervisor on the 2 to 10 p.m. shift. Griffin has diabetes, which requires him to eat carefully while managing his insulin levels.

Griffin took some time off for stress-related ailments. When he returned, he was informed that his shift would change to the overnight shift. He pro­­tested, claiming that working overnight would aggravate his diabetes. He wanted to switch to the day shift.

UPS immediately began the reasonable accommodations process by re­­questing information from Griffin’s doctors. At that point, all UPS had was a note from his behavioral health doctor suggesting that Griffin ease back into full-time work by just working part time for the first three weeks.

Griffin’s doctor did complete a medical form suggesting he could best manage his illness on the day shift. But the doctor had checked “No” on a question about whether Griffin’s condition substantially limited a major life activity other than working.

HR then informed Griffin that, based on his own doctor’s medical report, he was not disabled and thus not entitled to reasonable accommodations. He immediately submitted his retirement notice.

Then Griffin filed a failure-to-accommodate lawsuit.

UPS argued that Griffin had abandoned the reasonable accommodations process. He could have provided more information on how his condition substantially limited major life functions, but he chose instead to retire.

The court agreed that UPS had met its obligations and dismissed Grif­­fin’s case. (Griffin v. United Par­­cel Serv­­ice, No. 10-30854, 5th Cir., 2011)

Remember: Medical conditions can change over time. Just because an employee’s condition wasn’t initially severe enough to substantially impair a major life function doesn’t mean it might not become disabling later. With­­­­­­­­in reasonable limits, handle subsequent accommodation requests by asking for updated medical information.

Also remember that the obligation to accommodate is continual. If needs change, so may the accommodation.

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