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Accommodating Disabled Staff: How ‘Interactive’ Must the Discussion Be?

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We all know by now that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows qualified employees to request “reasonable accommodations” to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Employer and employee must engage in an “informal, interactive process” to identify what is a reasonable accommodation.

But, what if an employee gives you a laundry list of accommodations to consider? Do you have to go back and forth about every single one? When does the employer get to draw the line? One court recently warned employers that if the “ADA request ball” is in your court…you had better lob it back to the employee.

Case in Point: Saundra, a hearing officer for a District of Columbia government agency, suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus, which caused her trouble sitting, standing, walking and concentrating. About three years into her job, she was also diagnosed with degenerative disk disease.

Saundra took an extended medical leave of absence following back surgery. She claimed her supervisor told her she could work from home for a while. The agency denied her version of events and never authorized her informal demand to work from home. Saundra was instructed to submit her accommodation request in writing.

Saundra complied. In fact, she submitted 15 proposals for accommodations. Nine involved some form of an adjusted work schedule. She claimed since she was able to work at home in the past, it would be reasonable to allow her to work at home two or three days a week. The other six proposals related to modifications to her job duties and office space.

When Saundra met with management to discuss these, she claimed they “summarily denied” each of her requests without proposing any alternatives. She eventually returned to work in another position doing mostly the same responsibilities. Saundra eventually resigned and sued the agency for failure to accommodate her disability under the ADA.

The agency defended the ADA claim, saying it denied all the requests because Saundra’s position required her to be present at headquarters.

Ruling: The judge agreed with the agency that Saundra’s job had to be performed in the office, saying that, “completing her work from home three times over six years (in the past) is different in quality and quantity from her request to do so 40 to 60 percent of the time for the foreseeable future.”

However, that’s where the judge drew the line in the sand and noted that a jury could find the agency “responsible for the breakdown in communication” regarding the other six requests because evidence was lacking that those requests were even considered, let alone considered in a timely manner. (McNair v. Dist. of Columbia, 2014 BL 17882, D.D.C., No. 1/23/14)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

  1. Going “back and forth” is a verb. The court noted that while the employer and employee had a meeting to discuss Saundra’s requests for accommodations, no agreement was ever reached and no further discussions took place. The interactive process means “go back and forth” until a decision has been made. Then, make sure the whole back-and-forth process is documented.
  2. Do it timely. Tick. Tock. Watch the ADA clock. Don’t let any requests for accommodations dawdle. The judge sent the case to a jury to decide this one issue alone, “Did the employer timely respond to the employee’s request?”
  3. Know the “Ultimate ADA Question.” The proper question employers need to ask is not whether the request is “unreasonable” but rather, “whether any reasonable accommodation would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job without creating an undue hardship on the employer.” Read this again. There’s a big difference between the two questions. Learn it here, not in court.

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