United States: EEOC Issues Informal Guidance On Reasonable Accommodations For Mental Health Conditions

Seyfarth Synopsis: Though only an informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC's expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation. Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts.

Citing an increase in charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions during fiscal year 2016, the EEOC released a "resource document" on December 12, 2016, explaining "workplace rights" for individuals with mental health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The resource document – Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights – is presented in a question and answer format intended for applicants and employees. The informal guidance is a useful primer for understanding the EEOC's expanding stance on employer obligations to provide reasonable workplace accommodations.

At first blush, the resource document is nothing new. In question 1, the EEOC reiterates that employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants and employees because of a mental health condition. The document also notes that employers do not have to hire or retain individuals who are unable to perform the essential functions of a job or who pose a direct threat. However, the Agency strongly caveats that employers must "rely on objective evidence," "not myths or stereotypes," that would indicate that an individual is unable to perform a job or poses a significant safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation, before taking an adverse action against the individual.

Question 2 addresses the right of an applicant or employee to keep a mental health condition private. The EEOC notes that under the ADA, employers are only permitted to ask questions about the medical or health information of an applicant or employee when (1) an individual requests a hiring process or workplace accommodation; (2) when the employer requests medical information or testing post-offer, but pre-employment, provided everyone entering the same job category is subject to the same requirement; (3) when the employer is engaging in affirmative action for persons with disabilities; and (4) when there is "objective evidence" that the employee may not be able to do his or her job or poses a safety risk in the workplace because of his or her condition.

Questions 3 through 6 respond to hypothetical questions about when a reasonable accommodation may be required, how to request one, and the employer's obligation to respond, even when no accommodation exists that permits an employee to fulfill the essential functions of a position. The EEOC's responses here reveal the breadth of the Agency's interpretation of the ever-vexing question of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. In the first instance, in response to Question 3, the EEOC, without using the word "disability," states that an individual is entitled to a reasonable accommodation for "any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, 'substantially limit' your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other 'major life activity.'" The EEOC notes that the mental health condition need not be either permanent or severe to constitute "substantially limiting" and that conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) should "easily qualify."

The answer to Question 3 also provides broad, if imprecise, definition of reasonable accommodation, defining it as simply "some type of change in way things are normally done at work" and providing standard examples such as altered break and work schedules, quiet office space, changes in supervisory methods, along with some more controversial recommendations, such as choice of specific shift assignments and permission to work from home. And in Question 6, the Agency re-states the EEOC's vague standard that an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her position, even with an accommodation, may be entitled to an indeterminate amount leave – independent of FMLA leave – that "will help you get to a point whether you can perform those functions." The document also notes that failing leave, if an employee is "permanently" unable to perform his or her job, he or she may be entitled to job reassignment. Importantly, the Agency does not caveat here that any request for reasonable accommodation must be fundamentally intended to facilitate the employee's performance the essential functions of the job. Rather, the document implies that by virtue of having a mental health condition an individual or employee may be entitled to ask for some "change in the way things are normally done at work."

Questions 4 and 5 fortunately return to well-worn ADA principles. The EEOC directs employees who need a reasonable accommodation to ask for one and encourages employees to do so before workplace difficulties arise because "an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication." The EEOC also notes that employers are entitled to ask for health care provider documentation verifying the employee has a mental health condition and requires a workplace accommodation because of it. The document provides the link to what it terms the "companion document" – The Mental Health Provider's Role in a Client's Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work . The EEOC suggests that individuals provide the document to their health care providers when seeking medical documentation in relation to a request for a reasonable accommodation. The document also reminds that if a reasonable accommodation, justified by relevant medical provider documentation, would help an employee do his or her job, the employer must implement it barring "significant difficulty or expense."

Though only informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC's expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation. What does that mean for employers? Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts. In light of this guidance, however, employers should strongly consider seeking trusted legal counsel before denying a requested accommodation or taking adverse action against an employee who has or is seeking an accommodation.

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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