Navigating an employee's request for an accommodation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") can feel like walking a tightrope—an employee's requested accommodation may appear to exceed the limits of all reasonableness, but it can be difficult to know when an employer can finally say "no" without fear of liability. A recent decision from the Sixth Circuit provides helpful guidance on this issue. An employee's failure to fulfill an employer's request for medical documentation supporting the necessity of a requested accommodation precludes a later failure-to-accommodate claim.
In Tchankpa v. Ascena Retail Group, Inc., No. 19-3291 (March 6, 2020), an employee who worked in database support significantly injured his shoulder. As an accommodation for his shoulder, the employee requested that he be able to work from home three days per week or be transferred to a position where he could work from home. The employer, which had already been allowing him to arrive late or leave early as needed to attend medical appointments, asked him to provide medical documentation supporting the necessity of that accommodation. Approximately 10 months later, the employee finally provided documentation from his physician; but, while that documentation confirmed his injury, it said nothing about why he allegedly needed to work from home. To the contrary, it stated that the employee could work full time, five days per week.
In an unanimous opinion, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment to the employer on the employee's failure-to-accommodate claim. The court reiterated that an accommodation is "reasonable" under the ADA only if it actually addresses an obstacle that prevents the employee from doing his or her job. The employee in Tchankpa could not satisfy this burden, as he failed to show how working from home was related to his shoulder disability. Additionally, the court reiterated that employees "cannot justify accommodations for the first time during litigation." In litigation, the employee claimed that he sought the work-from-home accommodation to avoid transporting heavy laptops; but, because he did not tell his employer that when requesting the accommodation, he could not rely on that justification to support his claim.
The court further explained that an employer has the right to request medical documentation supporting an employee's requested accommodation. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c). As a result, once an employer asks for medical documentation demonstrating the medical necessity of a requested accommodation, it has "no duty" to provide the accommodation unless and until the employee supplies the medical documentation. But, the Tchankpa court clarified that if the employer does not ask for such documentation, an employee may be able to succeed on a failure-to-accommodate claim without it.
In sum, Tchankpa identifies a key tool for employers navigating the ADA. Ask for medical documentation supporting the necessity of the requested accommodation. If the employee cannot produce such documentation from his or her medical provider, the employer generally will not have a duty to provide the requested accommodation.
To read the Sixth Circuit's full opinion in Tchankpa, please click here.
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