Third Circuit Employment Law 101: ADA Reasonable Accommodation

September 7, 2010
By Eric B. Meyer on September 7, 2010 8:41 PM | | Comments
It's Monday morning. Johnny Lifts-A-Lot, an employee of Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware, Inc. tells his manager that he's going in for minor back surgery in a week and will have trouble lifting heavy objects for the foreseeable future thereafter. What are Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware, Inc.'s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Find out after the jump.
First, let's assume that, after his back surgery, Johnny will be considered to have a disability under the ADA. Therefore, Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware, Inc. needs to engage in an interactive dialogue with Johnny to come up with a "reasonable accommodation" for him.

Interactive dialogue? Reasonable accommodation? What the heck is that?

So what exactly is an interactive dialogue?

The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes it this way:
It's "an informal, interactive process . . . [to] identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations....Once a qualified individual with a disability has requested provision of a reasonable accommodation, the employer must make a reasonable effort to determine the appropriate accommodation. The appropriate reasonable accommodation is best determined through a flexible, interactive process that involves both the employer and the [employee] with a disability."
The EEOC has outlined four steps involved in the interactive process:
  1. Analyze the particular job involved and determine its purpose and essential functions;
  2. Consult with the [disabled] individual . . . to ascertain the precise job-related limitations imposed by the . . . disability and how those limitations could be overcome with a reasonable accommodation;
  3. Identify potential accommodations and assess the effectiveness each would have in enabling the individual to perform the essential functions of the position; and
  4. Consider the preference of the [disabled] individual . . . and select and implement the accommodation that is most appropriate for both the employee and the employer.
As for a reasonable accommodation, generally speaking, under the ADA, we're talking any one of the following:
  • Modifying or adjusting a job application to enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for a position;
  • Making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by the disabled employee;
  • Job restructuring;
  • Part-time or modified work schedule;
  • Reassignment to a vacant position for which the employee is qualified;
  • Acquisition or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies;
  • Provision of qualified readers or interpreters; and
  • Other similar accommodations for individuals with the employee's disability.
So, let's get back to our fact pattern. Johnny comes to Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware, Inc. about his back woes. The company should sit down with him and have a chat. Find out what Johnny can and can't do. Discuss alternatives to his current workload. Maybe you suggest that he be transferred to a less strenuous position. Maybe a back brace would help.

Remember though; this is an interactive dialogue. The company should ask Johnny what he wants. That doesn't mean what Johnny wants, Johnny gets. But if Johnny makes a reasonable request that allows him to do his job without unduly burdening Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware, Inc. -- a part-time schedule to allow Johnny to leave work early to treat with his physical therapist -- the company should accommodate him.

It's a lot easier -- and cheaper -- than defending a failure to accommodate action later on.