What laws protect disabled workers on the job?
ADA Lawyer Answer: As our regular blog readers already know, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of a disability. This protection comes from various state and federal anti-discrimination laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
How do I get a disability accommodation at work?
Top Disability Accommodation Attorney Answer: One provision of the ADA involves an employer’s duty to “engage in an interactive process” and to provide a “reasonable accommodation” when an employee is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of their job.(Best Law Reads: What Is The Interactive Process For Disabled Employees?; What Should Employees Know About Reasonable Accommodations?).
Although the employer has a duty to follow this process, they are not obligated to honor every request made by the employee. For example, an employer can refuse to honor an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the business. Lucas v. W.W. Grainger, Inc., 257 F.3d 1249, 1255 (11th Cir. 2001). (Best Law Read: No, Employers Are Not Required To Accommodate All Disabilities; Interactive Process: It Takes Two To Tango; What’s A Direct Threat Defense Under The ADA?). Another barrier to being granted a reasonable accommodation lies in the employee’s burden to show that the accommodation is necessary to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of their job. (Best Law Read: ADA: What’s An Essential Job Function?)
What is an example of an undue hardship?
Best Employment Lawyer Answer: A recent case out of Georgia, Edwards v. WellStar Medical Group, LLC, No. 20-13866, No. 20-13866, 2022 WL 3012297 (11th Cir. Jul. 29, 2022), showed exactly what could happen if an employee fails to meet this burden, or if an employer finds that a request will cause an undue hardship. In the Edwards case, Office Manager Cindy Edwards went out on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”) for anxiety and stress in October 2017. (Best Law Read: What Are My Job Rights If I’m Suicidal?; Can My Boss Fire Me If I Attempted Suicide?; Top Disability Discrimination Lawyer Reply: Can I Be Fired For Having Depression Or Anxiety?).
When she returned several months later, HR allowed Edwards to work on a reduced schedule for thirty days. This accommodation caused some tension between Edwards and her supervisors to the point where Edwards no longer felt comfortable working under their supervision. As a result, Edwards requested the accommodation of being transferred to different supervisors. After meeting and discussing her request, HR advised Edwards that transferring supervisors was not a reasonable accommodation and advised her to submit a request for a different accommodation within a week.
Spoiler Alert—Continue reading to discover the wrong way to request a reasonable accommodation
A few hours after HR advised her to submit a different accommodation request, Edwards emailed HR with a list of eighteen accommodations that she copied and pasted from the ADA website – 18!!!. The list included requests for such things as: permission to take breaks whenever she needed; reduction and/or removal of distractions in the workplace, a tape recorder for meetings, modification or removal of non-essential job duties, implementation of a flexible and supportive supervision style, no code of conduct violations of any kind, and one week’s notice anytime a meeting was going to be scheduled. (Best Law Read: Can I Pick The ADA Accommodation I Want?; Can I Switch My Disability Accommodation?). In cutting and pasting this list, Edwards failed to explain how any of the requested accommodations addressed her particular disability.
HR responded that they did not understand if Edwards was requesting all of the accommodations, or if some subset would be acceptable. HR also stated it was unclear how these requested accommodations would help Edwards perform her job in light of her existing health condition. Edwards’s generically responded that the accommodations would allow her to maximize her productivity. She also linked some of the accommodations to her depression and anxiety, and asked HR if she needed to provide medical documentation of her disability. (Best Law Read: Is An Expert Needed To Prove Disability In Discrimination Cases?).
A few days later, HR responded that Edward’s requests were “unduly burdensome, impractical, and disruptive.” (Best Law Read: Does My Employer Have To Accommodate My Epilepsy?). HR continued by explaining that it was not feasible to schedule all meetings one week in advance and that many of Edwards’s requests were “too general to implement in a meaningful way.” HR concluded that they could not grant Edwards’s request and that because she had failed several opportunities to request a reasonable accommodation to assist her in performing her job, they concluded that “no such accommodation exists.” Because Edwards could not identify an accommodation that would enable her to perform her essential job functions, HR terminated Edwards’s employment with WellStar.
After she was terminated, Edwards sued WellStar in district court for wrongful termination. Edwards’s lawsuit was based on two claims—WellStar’s failure to accommodate her disability and their failure to engage in the interactive process required by the ADA. WellStar argued that Edwards’s requested accommodations were all either unreasonable, non-specific, or required the essential functions of Edwards’s position to be changed. Additionally, WellStar contended that Edwards’s claim regarding their failure to engage in the interactive process was also flawed. They were able to provide sufficient evidence they had indeed made several attempts to work with Edwards in good faith to find an accommodation that would assist her in performing the essential functions of her job as an office manager.
The district court entered summary judgment for WellStar and dismissed the case. As to the failure to accommodate claim, the district court concluded that “[b]ecause [Edwards] has failed to clarify what accommodation(s) she needed to address her disability, she has failed to show that her requested accommodations were reasonable[.]” The district court also rejected Edwards’s argument that some of her accommodations were reasonable, explaining that she hadn’t “identified which accommodations she needed to appropriately address her disability and that would permit her to do her job.”
Regarding the claim of WellStar’s failure to engage in the interactive process, the district court found there was a long history of WellStar’s “considering and granting” many of Edwards’s requests, including their most recent efforts to review and even allow Edwards to revise her numerous requests for accommodations in May of 2018. The court went on to point out that not only did WellStar allow Edwards to revise her requests, but she also had in fact failed in her duty to clarify which requests would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job.
Edwards appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit ultimately affirmed the lower court’s decision, specifically noting that because “Edwards had failed to show she requested any reasonable accommodation”, WellStar did not fail to engage in the interactive process, because they were not under any obligation to initiate the process.
The lesson here? Although the ADA provides protection for employees with disabilities, the employee is still responsible for taking certain steps to show that a requested reasonable accommodation is indeed necessary for performing the essential functions of their job. An employee can’t just ask for any accommodation under the sun without being able to relate it back to an essential job function. If you are unsure of what to do while going through the process, don’t wait to get help from a lawyer.
What should I do if my request for a reasonable accommodation was denied by my employer?
Best Employee’s Rights Attorney Answer: Our experienced employment law attorneys are qualified to weigh a variety of factors to determine if you have a viable claim for having been denied a request for a reasonable accommodation. We are also able to assist if you need help deciding which accommodation(s) you should request. Don’t rely on headlines or news reports to make that decision, call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation today! (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?; Why Having Skilled Employment Attorneys Is Critical). Call our lawyers in Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina to get help now. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, and its experienced attorneys are dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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