United States: Please Be Reasonable! Seventh Circuit Decision Highlights The Importance Of Process In Handling ADA Accommodation Requests

Last Updated: September 11 2015
Article by Emmanuel Boulukos

Like many troublesome legal concepts, "reasonable accommodation," a cornerstone of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), seems simple enough at first glance. The challenge for employers comes in attempting to apply this elusive concept to real employees, with real medical or mental conditions, in real workplaces.

Among the most vexing potential accommodations with which employers grapple are extended medical leaves and "light duty" assignments. Unlike tangible accommodations such as an ergonomic stool or a low-glare computer screen, the extent of an employer's obligation to provide leave or light duty work is hardly self-evident. Such uncertainty easily turns to frustration—and sometimes hasty, ill-considered decisions.

As tempting as it may be to an overwhelmed employer, a hasty decision may prove to be a costly one. In contrast, as exemplified by Swanson v. Village of Flossmoor, a recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, exercising patience and emphasizing process in handling accommodation requests can pay off in the long run.

As a quick refresher, the ADA requires a covered employer to provide a qualified employee with a disability a reasonable accommodation allowing the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. A "reasonable" accommodation is not necessarily the accommodation the employee requests nor the one that he or she prefers. Moreover, the law does not require an employer to provide an otherwise reasonable accommodation if it poses an undue hardship to the employer's operations.

And just how are employers to determine whether an accommodation qualifies as "reasonable"? Under federal court decisions and ADA regulations published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the employer and employee must engage in an "interactive dialogue" to determine what if any reasonable accommodations are available. Depending on the circumstances, light duty work and medical leaves of absence (even potentially in excess of what the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the employer's leave policies allow) may or may not qualify.

The Swanson case provides a useful example of how patience and active participation in the interactive process is an employer's best defense against a potential failure-to-accommodate claim. The plaintiff in Swanson was a police detective who suffered two debilitating strokes. After the first, in July of 2009, the plaintiff took FMLA leave. He returned several weeks later with a doctor's note suggesting that he work a part-time schedule until he underwent further neurological evaluation. Consequently, he began working a three-day schedule, covering the other two week days with accrued paid leave.

A few weeks later, in mid-September, after he began to experience headaches and lightheadedness, the plaintiff requested a light duty or "desk duty" assignment. The police department denied the request on the basis that it had no light duty policy. Consistent with his doctor's prior recommendation, the plaintiff continued his part time schedule. Shortly thereafter, he experienced his second stroke, and went back on FMLA leave.

In early December, the police department wrote the plaintiff to inform him that his FMLA leave would soon expire, noting that he was eligible to request an unpaid leave of absence to continue his leave. A few days later, when the plaintiff was set to come back to work with no restrictions, he suffered yet another medical episode, resulting in his voluntary resignation.

In affirming the dismissal of the plaintiff's ADA failure-to-accommodate claim, the court of appeals rejected the plaintiff's assertion that he had been entitled to be accommodated with a light duty assignment. Although the plaintiff's supervisor was incorrect that the department had no light-duty policy, the department lawfully denied the request because; (1) the policy allowed the department the discretion to offer (or not offer) light duty work to disabled employees; and (2) the policy required a physician's report specifying the employee's restrictions. Here, in contrast, the plaintiff's doctor's note contained no specific restrictions, and recommended part-time work, not light duty.

More broadly, the court held that the department's obligation was to provide a reasonable accommodation—not necessarily the plaintiff's preferred accommodation. In this case, the court of appeals concluded, the department had done exactly that. It granted the plaintiff's requests to extend his leave, and allowed him to use accrued leave to work part-time per his doctor's suggestion. For these reasons, the plaintiff's claim rightfully failed at the trial court level.

As Swanson demonstrates, properly handling accommodation requests requires a careful assessment of the particular circumstances, including information received from the medical professionals treating the employee, the employer's existing policies, and the employee's feedback during the interactive process. Moreover, it provides a useful reminder that fulfilling an employer's duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is not about giving an employee whatever he or she requests. Instead, it is about engaging in a meaningful interactive dialogue to determine whether the employer can provide an accommodation that meets the employee's needs.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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