Generally, an employer’s duty to accommodate takes more than an employee merely disclosing a disability


In a recent Fourth Circuit decision, the plaintiff learned this lesson the hard way.

The plaintiff, a lawyer who later earned a promotion to Town Manager, suffered from anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure. He alleged in his complaint that the defendant knew about these disabilities.

In January 2018, a law firm representing the plaintiff and two of his colleagues wrote to the defendant seeking changes to “the daily office environment” at Town Hall. This letter was entitled “Accommodations Requests” and referenced the Americans with Disabilities Act in its opening line. However, the Fourth Circuit noted that the letter’s “overall aim” was “to foster a well-running office, based on the principles of mutual respect, clear communication, and . . . well-defined roles.” Critically, the letter neither referenced the plaintiff’s disabilities nor explained how the proposed changes might alleviate these disabilities. Consequently, the defendant did not immediately engage in an interactive process with the plaintiff to explore possible workplace accommodations.

The plaintiff argued that the defendant had violated the ADA by failing to accommodate his disabilities. In reality, however, the ADA initially requires more of the plaintiff.

Before an employer is required to accommodate a disabled employee, the employee must make an adequate request, thereby putting the employer on notice. A disabled employee only needs to communicate that they are disabled — not even the precise limitations of the disability — and need an accommodation. They don’t even need to say ‘ADA.’

The mere request for an accommodation triggers the employer’s obligation to participate in the interactive process of determining one. If the employer has questions, it can ask. This informal, interactive process will ascertain the extent of any disabilities and the range of accommodations that might address them.

But the Fourth Circuit stressed that the employee must make clear that they need help because of their disability:

While the burden of requesting an accommodation is light, not every work-related request by a disabled employee constitutes a request for accommodation under the ADA…[B]ut the employee must inform [their] employer that the employee requires an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition…Merely labelling a list of suggestions an ‘accommodation request’ is not enough to inform the employer that the employee is requesting workplace changes to address his disabilities, rather than other, unrelated issues…The substance of the employee’s communication, not its title, determines whether the ADA applies.

The plaintiff’s letter fell short because, nomenclature notwithstanding, its substance did not relate to his disabilities at all. Instead, it just read like a list of grievances.

An employer must engage in an interactive dialogue to explore possible accommodations only when both the employee and the employer comprehend that an employee’s request for an accommodation relates to the employee’s disability.

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