A recent Eighth Circuit decision helps show how an employer can discharge its obligations to engage in the Americans with Disabilities Act interactive process in good faith.
Remote work during flare-ups
The case involves a plaintiff with multiple sclerosis who worked in customer service at a hospital, the defendant. After a few promotions, the plaintiff became a supervisor, managing a team of 20 employees.
The hospital had a policy allowing employees to telework one day a week (it later became two). Because of his MS, the plaintiff requested an accommodation in December 2017 to work remotely whenever his MS flared. The defendant considered it but ultimately declined. They said that it would be unfair to the plaintiff’s co-supervisor. However, the plaintiff’s manager told him he could take paid leave and FMLA instead.
In February 2018, the plaintiff again asked permission to telecommute when his condition flared. This time, he supplied a supporting doctor’s note to the defendant.
In March 2018, the plaintiff met with his manager and an HR representative to discuss his accommodation request. The hospital again denied it, but the plaintiff could ask his manager on a case-by-case basis to work from home during a flare-up. Additionally, the defendant offered that the plaintiff could follow up if he had any questions or concerns.
The manager told the plaintiff that the defendant could not accommodate his request because he needed to supervise direct reports in the office and his flare-ups were unpredictable. Yet, despite this refusal, the plaintiff recalled only one instance when his manager denied a request to telework during a flare-up and required him to take time off instead.
The plaintiff voluntarily resigned in August 2018, as he feared that he was in danger of being discharged due to his condition. He then sued for ADA violations. Among other things, he alleged that the defendant failed to accommodate his disability.
A good-faith interactive dialogue
For a failure-to-accommodate claim to survive summary judgment, an employee must also show that his employer failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith. All the interactive process requires is that employers make a good-faith effort to seek accommodations.
Here, the defendant met with the plaintiff to discuss his requests to telework during flare-ups. The plaintiff did not propose an alternative accommodation, nor did the record suggest that anything else would allow him to perform the job’s essential functions.
The defendant consistently told the plaintiff that he could contact his manager on a case-by-basis but would not go so far as to greenlight a blanket request to work from home during flare-ups. Additionally, the defendant offered that plaintiff could follow up if he had any questions or concerns. He never did.
In practice, the defendant only denied one of the plaintiff’s requests to work from home, and on that day, he used paid time off.
The Eighth Circuit concluded that these steps established the hospital engaged in the interactive process and took action to accommodate the plaintiff.
It’s hard for employees to succeed on an ADA failure-to-accommodate claim when they ultimately get the accommodation they seek. Results matter. The employer’s willingness to continue the interactive dialogue with the plaintiff to allow him to ask more questions or identify any concerns also goes a long way to demonstrating that the employer acted in good faith. I can imagine them saying, “How else can we help you?”
This case also serves as a good reminder to train and involve your managers in the ADA interactive process so that they understand the good-faith, interactive component of the ADA and can assist in identifying accommodations that will enable employees to perform essential functions of the job without imposing undue hardship on the business.