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Second Circuit Upholds Employers' Use of Effective ADA Accommodation Over "Perfect" One Sought by Employee

    Client Alerts
  • June 12, 2015
Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities in order for them to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Employers and employees often disagree over whether a particular measure effectively accommodates the needs of the disabled worker. According to a new decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, employers may choose a reasonably effective measure even if it is not the one preferred by the employee.

In Noll v. IBM, the plaintiff was a deaf software engineer who encountered problems understanding videos posted on the company’s intranet. He requested that all such files be transcribed and accompanied by close captions before being posted. As an alternative measure, IBM agreed to provide ASL interpreters to the plaintiff to allow real-time translation of the videos, and to transcribe selected video and audio materials after receiving his request.

The plaintiff sued, claiming that IBM failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. He contended that the ASL interpretation service was not an effective accommodation because it required him to divide his attention between the video and the interpreter. IBM noted that although more difficult, the accommodation offered still provided the plaintiff with an effective way to accomplish his essential job functions.

In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit agreed with IBM, affirming dismissal of the lawsuit. In its opinion, the majority noted that the ADA does not require employers to provide disabled employees with requested accommodations, only effective ones of its own choosing. In this case, the translation service was an effective accommodation, even if the plaintiff  preferred a perfect solution.  IBM was not required to engage in an interactive process to explore other alternatives once it had identified an effective accommodation. The dissenting judge believed that a jury should decide whether the ASL translation was an effective accommodation.

Employers often react to an expensive or burdensome accommodation request by rejecting the measure out of hand and concluding that they cannot accommodate the disability. Instead, employers can explore and ultimately implement alternative effective ADA accommodations even if they are measures actively rejected by the disabled employee. While most employers prefer to reach a mutual agreement as to such steps, the ADA provides the flexibility to implement such measures despite the employee’s preference for an alternative accommodation.