What’s required by the law:
Under the ADA, once an employer becomes aware of the need for a reasonable accommodation for an employee, he or she has a mandatory obligation to engage in the interactive process. In general, this requires a good faith, continuing effort to establish and maintain lines of communication between employer and employee with regard to the reasonable accommodation request. Furthermore, neither side can delay or obstruct the interactive process once it has been initiated by the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. If an employee can establish that an employer failed to engage in the interactive process (either by failing to initiate contact, not acting in good faith with respect to communication with the employee, and/or obstructing communication), and that a reasonable accommodation would have otherwise been possible, the employer can be held liable for failure to accommodate under the ADA.
A real life example:
A recent federal court decision from Illinois provides a good example. In Cloutier v. GoJet Airlines, a diabetic pilot needed more time off than is allowed under the FMLA to get his medication right; however, when he attempted to extend his medical leave, the employer believed he had submitted his forms late and determined he had abandoned his job and terminated his employment. But that wasn’t true. There had actually been a miscommunication that caused a breakdown in the back-and-forth communication between employer and employee. The pilot blamed the airline and the airline blamed the pilot.
What the court ruled:
The court ruled that it was not clear who was the source of the breakdown in the interactive process. The court reasoned that, while Cloutier was slow in responding to emails from his supervisors and did not submit his FMLA paperwork on time, GoJet supervisors failed to respond to Cloutier’s suggestions for reasonable accommodations and eventually ceased all communication with him.
Why the case is important:
Employers may be liable for failures that occur during the interactive process. Another example occurred in the case Perry-Anderson v. Howard University Hospital, where the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also denied a motion for summary judgment based in part on facts that suggested the employer had not participated in the interactive process in good faith. In that case, a hospital employee had suffered a stress-induced stroke and requested either reassignment to a less stressful environment or a modified work schedule as a reasonable accommodation. When her request wasn’t granted, she filed suit. In court, she presented evidence that the hospital had claimed it had no obligation to assist her, failed to discuss the option of a modified work schedule, and ultimately refused to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. All of these factors contributed to the court’s ultimate decision that there was enough evidence of a breakdown in the interactive process—and thus a potential ADA violation—for the case to go to trial.
At Alan Lescht & Associates, P.C., we take your disability discrimination claims seriously. If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your disability or denied a reasonable accommodation, we can help. Give us a call today at (202) 463-6036, email us, or visit our website.