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Employer Had Implied Knowledge of Employee's Need for ADA Reasonable Accommodation

    Client Alerts
  • October 31, 2016

Since the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that employees can trigger the Act’s reasonable accommodation obligations without having to ask for an accommodation by name. If the employer has knowledge of the employee’s medical condition and a reasonable basis for understanding that the employee is seeking an accommodation, it can be found liable for failure to provide such accommodation. A decision earlier this month from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates how an implied request for accommodation can arise.

In Kowitz v. Trinity Health, the employee had recent neck surgery and had returned to work with certain medical restrictions. Her employer advised her that her CPR certification needed to be updated, and she responded that she could not complete the recertification process until her physical therapy was completed. The employer terminated her for failure to obtain the CPR recertification without exploring accommodations. She sued, claiming failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The employer argued that the employee was not entitled to any accommodation because she had never asked for one. The district court agreed, dismissing the claim on summary judgment. In a 2-1 opinion, the Eighth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the claim for jury trial. The majority opinion concluded that the employer was aware of the plaintiff’s medical condition. Her linking of her inability to complete the CPR certification to her need for physical therapy acted as a request for accommodation. Taking into account all of the facts available to the employer, the employee did not need to ask for an accommodation to trigger the defendant’s ADA obligations.

The dissenting judge stated that even in a situation where the employer is aware of the employee’s medical condition, she must request some type of assistance to invoke the ADA’s accommodation obligations. The majority opinion recognizes that in some situations, this request can be implied from the parties’ interactions. If an employer knows of an employee’s medical condition and suspects that work problems result from the condition, it should engage in the accommodation process regardless of whether the employee specifically requests assistance.