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Practical tip for employers: understand the root of an employee’s request for accommodation in order to effectively engage in the requisite interactive process. Otherwise, the response by the employer to an employee’s request for accommodation may not be enough to pass muster under the ADA. To illustrate this point, consider the recent decision in Rivera v. Altranais Home Care LLC. In Rivera, Judge Katherine A. Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment and decided a reasonable jury could find the employer failed to engage in a good faith interactive process with its employee in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
In Rivera, the employee suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) after the murder of her boyfriend. The employer provided the employee with accommodations including intermittent leave to attend therapy appointments. The employee also requested that her employer provide her with a private office with a window to manage her PTSD symptoms, a claim her therapist partially (and imperfectly) substantiated with a note stating open spaces and crowds triggered her anxiety. The employee had been permitted to use another employee’s office prior to her boyfriend’s murder to manage pre-existing anxiety symptoms, and was permitted to continue using that office for about a year after the murder, but she was displaced when the more senior employee whose office she was using began to need the office more frequently. The employee was offered a windowless private office, but she refused. Thereafter, the employer asked the employee to cover the front desk which, she claimed, triggered her anxiety. The employee requested use of another private office with a window, but the employer refused because that office had been assigned to an incoming employee. The employer offered her a number of alternative accommodations, including sharing an office with a co-worker or using a conference room with exterior windows. The employee refused all options offered to her choosing instead to resign. In denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment, the Court found the facts set forth above rendered the issue of whether the employer engaged the employee in a good faith interactive process for accommodating her disability a question for a jury.
To avoid running afoul of the ADA or similar state and local law, employers must engage in good faith with any employee seeking accommodation for a disability. In order to do so, the employer should have a solid understanding of the needs underlying the request for accommodation, while also being mindful of privacy rights of the employee. Employers should address accommodation requests on a factual, case-by-case basis, and make exceptions to return to work or formal work policies in accordance with applicable laws for providing accommodations.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Janet Barringer at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ryan Giggi at email@example.com in the National Labor & Employment Practice Section at Freeman, Mathis & Gary, LLP.