The Americans with Disabilities Act contemplates employers and disabled employees engaging in an interactive process to determine whether there are any reasonable accommodations that will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Does the employer have to go through this process in cases where it is readily apparent that there are no possible available accommodations?
In a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals case, McBride v. BIC Consumer Products Mfg. Co., Inc., the court confirmed that employers do not have to go through a meaningless accommodation process for its own sake. The plaintiff in this case was a manufacturing employee who developed a respiratory ailment allegedly related to chemical exposure in the workplace. Her doctor released her to return to work under the instructions that she not work in an environment where such fumes are present, even with use of a respirator. Faced with this absolute restriction, BIC terminated the plaintiff's employment.
She sued, claiming failure to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleged that BIC should have explored vacant available positions in the office portion of the facility as an accommodation. She claimed that the failure to engage in any interactive accommodation process was in itself an ADA violation. In response, BIC offered evidence showing that the plaintiff did not have even minimal qualifications for any available office job.
The Second Circuit affirmed dismissal of the complaint. The court concluded that the interactive process is a means toward the accommodation end, but is not in and of itself an ADA requirement. Where the disabled employee offers absolutely no information that points to a possible accommodation, the employer does not have to go through the motions of conducting a meaningless accommodation process.
The court did warn employers that failure to engage in the interactive process can result in an ADA violation where there are feasible accommodations, and that such failure can serve as prima facie evidence of discrimination. Employers should carefully document their response to an employee's disability, whether through the interactive process or otherwise.