Employees who request reasonable accommodation of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act are expected to engage in an interactive process with their employers to determine whether an appropriate accommodation is available. Last month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a failure to accommodate claim brought by an employee who failed to explain why multiple accommodations proposed by the employer would not have been effective.
In Hopper v. Lewis Univ., the plaintiff was a professor who was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed moods. Her doctor wrote to the university and requested that she be assigned a different office location as an accommodation. The university provided three potential alternative locations, but the plaintiff rejected all three locations because they were in the same building as her current office. Despite specific requests from the university, the plaintiff and her doctor failed to specify what alternative location would be acceptable, or what particular stressors were causing the need to switch offices. She sued, claiming failure to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the accommodation claim on summary judgment. The court noted that the ADA does not require employers to provide the employee's preferred accommodation, only one that is effective. In order to determine whether a proposed accommodation would be effective, the employee is obligated to engage in the interactive process and to provide the employer with reasonable information that would allow it to make an accommodation decision.
In this case, the plaintiff's failure to clarify the extent of her medical restrictions constituted failure to engage in the interactive process. The doctor failed to provide adequate information regarding the nature of and need for the requested accommodation, even after multiple requests were made. The university's offer of three proposed alternative office locations demonstrated that it was acting in good faith and attempting to accommodate the plaintiff.
Employers should carefully document accommodation attempts and communications with employees regarding medical information and proposed accommodations. Under the ADA, employers who make a good faith effort to accommodate through the interactive process are not subject to claims for compensatory and punitive damages, even if a court later determines that they did not provide a required accommodation. If the employee unreasonably refuses to participate in this process, or fails to provide requested medical information, the employer has legal grounds to terminate the process and reject the accommodation request.