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Sign Language Interpreter May Be Required for All But Casual Workplace Communications

    Client Alerts
  • September 10, 2010

Since the passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, disability discrimination litigation has begun to shift from questions over protected medical conditions to disputes over whether an employer provided adequate reasonable accommodations to a disabled employee. A recent case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reminds employers that their accommodation obligations may require extensive measures to aid disabled employees and applicants.

In EEOC v. UPS Supply Chain Solutions, the plaintiff was a deaf accounts payable clerk whose disability did not interfere with his standard job duties. However, he repeatedly complained about the lack of an American Sign Language interpreter for routine weekly staff meetings. UPS provided the plaintiff with notes of the meetings, but he claimed that he had limited reading and writing skills, and that the notes did not allow him to ask questions or to understand the full context of the meetings. He also alleged that UPS had failed to accommodate him by providing an ASL interpreter for all disciplinary conferences and training sessions. While UPS did provide a translator for what it considered to be significant meetings, it relied on written communications in some circumstances.

The Ninth Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment for UPS, remanding the matter for trial. The court concluded that given the plaintiff's limited reading and writing capabilities, it may be reasonable for UPS to provide an ASL translator for even routine meetings and brief communications with the plaintiff. A jury will decide whether these would have been effective accommodations, or would impose an undue hardship on UPS.

Given the capriciousness of many juries, employers may be understandably hesitant to risk a verdict on whether the steps taken to accommodate a disabled employee were reasonable. This shift from threshold questions of ADA eligibility to ones over reasonable accommodation create significant financial and other risks for employers that may increase the settlement value of even routine ADA discrimination claims.