The plaintiff in the case I read last night worked in Hawaii as a customer service representative. She was a clinically obese woman with a long history of diabetes and hypertension, resulting in physical limitations related to neuropathy in her hands and feet. However, her job involved sitting at a desk, taking calls, and answering emails. So she had no trouble performing it for the first seven years of employment.
But, since I’m writing today about an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit, things did eventually go south, as you may have expected.
Indeed, the lawsuit focused on three accommodation requests.
- In January 2018, the plaintiff asked to park closer to the office. The defendant declined. The plaintiff later injured herself.
- In July 2018, while on leave with worker’s compensation, the plaintiff received a notice of pending termination if she did not return to work within a month. So, the plaintiff requested a leave extension. However, the defendant declined (and fired her) because it did not receive any documentation fully releasing the plaintiff to return to work.
- In August 2018, the defendant informed the plaintiff that she could be recalled after she recovered and provided a full medical release within six months. Although the plaintiff could not obtain one in six months because she was still awaiting approval for surgery, her doctor approved her for modified duty. Her union representative also requested a recall extension. The defendant denied the request.
In each instance, the plaintiff alleged a failure to accommodate. An employee’s request for an accommodation triggers a duty to engage in an “interactive process” through which the employer and employee can come to understand the employee’s abilities and limitations, the employer’s needs for various positions, and a possible middle ground for accommodating the employee.
The court also noted that if an employer fails to engage in the interactive process in good faith, the employer will be liable under the ADA “if a reasonable accommodation would have been possible.”
Yet, the defendant prevailed on the first request.
Why? Because the plaintiff waited too long to pursue that claim with the EEOC. An individual must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 300 days of the denial of an accommodation. Otherwise, the claim is time-barred. And denying subsequent accommodation requests doesn’t breathe life into the old ones. Each denial of a request for an ADA accommodation constitutes a separate and discrete discriminatory act, subject to its own unique statute of limitations timeline.
Here, the plaintiff waited well over 300 days after the first accommodation request to file with the EEOC. So, the court dismissed that ADA claim.
But as you may have surmised already, the plaintiff will have her day in court on the remaining accommodation requests because the defendant failed to engage in any interactive process and could not establish that either accommodation was unavailable to the plaintiff.
And although the court didn’t comment on the 100%-healed restriction, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission treats it as a huge bugaboo.
Learn from this employer’s apparent mistakes.
Employer policies that require employees on extended leave to be fully healed or able to work without restrictions may deny some employees reasonable accommodations that would enable them to return to work. Employers may have to modify leave policies as a reasonable accommodation. Reallocating non-essential functions and light duty (if available) could work. Employers also sometimes fail to consider reassignment as an option for employees with disabilities who cannot return to their jobs following leave.
For those of you in Hawaii that may be looking for training on these issues, I know a guy.