Seyfarth Synopsis: Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals clarifies that employers have discretion to provide a reasonable accommodation as identified through the interactive process. Once an employee abandons the interactive process, the employer has no duty to accommodate.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the purpose of the interactive process is to "identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations." Employers may erroneously believe that the interactive process as a tool is something utilized by and beneficial to employees. However, the Sixth Circuit has recently shed light on just how the interactive process protects employers from having to make on-the-spot accommodations of an employee's choosing.
In Brumley v. United Parcel Service, Inc., the Plaintiff Melissa Brumley, who worked primarily as a sorter, injured her back while unloading heavy packages from a UPS truck. After receiving worker's compensation and taking a leave of absence, she initially returned to work with two return-to-work notes that included permanent lifting restrictions and a statement that Brumley may return to "local sort." Even though it was unclear exactly how Brumley requested an accommodation, upon receipt of Brumley's return-to-work notes UPS initiated an internal ADA interactive process, and pursuant to that process, asked Brumley to submit two medical forms that would allow it to evaluate further her restrictions and identify possible accommodations. Brumley remained on leave as a result of this request.
Thereafter, and after nearly a month delay in providing UPS with the requested medical documents, Brumley met with UPS's Human Resource Manager. At that meeting, UPS indicated that they were reviewing Brumley's restrictions and considering positions she could fill. However, Brumley disclosed at that meeting that she desired to voluntarily discontinue the interactive process and return to her doctor to have her work restrictions lifted. Because Brumley's lifting restrictions were ultimately removed by her doctor, she ultimately returned to work without accommodations. After Brumley's restrictions were lifted, UPS closed the interactive process and Brumley returned to work.
Nevertheless, several months later, Brumley sued UPS for failure to accommodate and disability discrimination, among other claims — in other words for keeping her off work during the time that they were evaluating her "return to local sort" restrictions from her doctor. The district court granted summary judgment in UPS's favor on all claims and Brumley appealed. On appeal, Brumley argued, among other things, that UPS should have allowed her to work in local sort when she returned to work because her doctor's note stated that she was able to do that work.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision and found that an employer's refusal to provide an accommodation to the position of the employee's choice immediately upon the employee's request is not, in and of itself, a failure to accommodate under the ADA. UPS had discretion to provide a reasonable accommodation as identified through the interactive process. Once Brumley voluntarily abandoned that process, UPS could not be liable for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.
Takeaways for Employers
With ADA claims on the rise, employers should remember the importance of a formal (and documented) interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation that works for the company, even if that process takes time. Employers can view the interactive process as both a shield and a sword for defending itself against claims of failure to accommodate. The duty to engage in the interactive process applies equally to both employers and employees. If the employee opts-out of the interactive process, the employer is under no duty to proceed with an accommodation. This decision is an important reminder that the interactive process under the ADA is not just a requirement for employers to engage in good faith—it also demands the same from employees before they can claim a failure to accommodate.
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