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A request for reasonable accommodations should trigger an “interactive dialogue” under the ADA—what does that mean for you?

Federal law requires most employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.  In order to figure out what reasonable accommodation will help an employee, your employer should engage in an “interactive dialogue.”  This means your employer must talk to you about your limitations and what you need to help you do your job.

What is the interactive process for reasonable accommodation?

Once your employer learns that you need a reasonable accommodation for a disability, he or she is obligated to engage in an interactive process. In general, this requires a continuing, good faith effort to communicate with you about your need for an accommodation.  The interactive process doesn’t have to be a formal process.  It may include emails, phone calls, or discussions about what accommodations may be helpful.  You also have a duty to participate in the interactive process.  For example, your employer may not have to accommodate you if you fail to provide supporting medical documentation or other information about your request.

If your employer fails to engage in the interactive process and does not provide reasonable accommodations, you may be able to sue for disability discrimination.

A real life example:

Prestige Care, Inc., Prestige Senior Living, LLC, and their affiliates operate nursing and assisted living facilities in Washington state.  Prestige had a policy requiring employees to perform their job duties without any limitations.  The employer refused to engage in the interactive process or to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.  Employees filed discrimination charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  The EEOC agreed that Prestige violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California against Prestige (EEOC v. Prestige Care, Inc. et al., Case No. 1:17-cv-01299-AWI-SAB).

Earlier this year, Prestige agreed to pay $2,000,000 to settle the lawsuit.  The settlement agreement also requires Prestige to revise its disability discrimination policies, engage in the interactive process, provide reasonable accommodations, provide training, and designate employees to handle reasonable accommodation requests and disability discrimination complaints.

Cases like this send a strong message that employers must engage in the interactive process or face the consequences.

Do I need an attorney during the interactive process?

If your employer complies with the law, you shouldn’t need an attorney to request a reasonable accommodation or to engage in the interactive process.  However, if your employer denies your accommodations request, it may be helpful to consult an experienced employment lawyer.  An attorney can determine whether your employer broke the law by failing to engage in the interactive process or subjecting you to disability discrimination.

If you need reasonable accommodations for a disability, Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., can help.  We represent federal government workers around the world, and private-sector and state and local government employees in Washington, DC, Maryland, and northern Virginia in cases involving reasonable accommodations and disability discrimination.

This post was originally published on May 24, 2018, and was updated on September 14, 2020.

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