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Work the ADA process when it isn’t obvious an employee has a qualifying disability

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Sometimes, employees jump right into requesting reasonable accommodations, even if it’s not obvious they have a disabling medical condition. Does the employer automatically violate the law by refusing to consider the request?

That’s the question the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals just answered. For­tunately, the court sided with the em­­­ployer and rejected the idea that a blanket refusal to discuss accommodations violates the ADA.

Recent case: Maria Picard worked at a hospital, transcribing doctors’ dictation. She got consistently good reviews and regular raises.

Then she developed a rare disorder that affected her nervous system. Picard claimed the condition caused her to occasionally drop things, and forced her to concentrate while walking to keep from falling. She said it made her generally move slower than before.

Picard asked for assistance with transcription, requesting software that would let her dictate the material she was transcribing into her computer. The software would then type out the dictation and allow her to edit the output, speeding up her transcriptions. The hospital denied her request.

Eventually, Picard quit and took another job. Then she sued the hospital, claiming it had refused to engage in the interactive accommodations process. She argued that this automatically violated the ADA.

The case went to trial, but a jury concluded she wasn’t disabled. She appealed, arguing that whether she was disabled or not was irrelevant, because the hospital had refused to discuss her disability and her requested accommodation.

The 5th Circuit first reviewed the jury’s conclusion that Picard was not disabled and agreed she wasn’t. It noted that Picard could work well enough to get raises. She could walk, talk and generally get around well, even though she was somewhat slower than others.

Then the appeals court said that because she wasn’t disabled, she couldn’t automatically win a lawsuit just because the employer wouldn’t discuss accommodations. (Picard v. St. Tammany Parish Hospital, No. 10-30719, 5th Cir., 2011)

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