The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) encourages employers to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees to determine if there are reasonable accommodations that allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. What happens when an employer tries an accommodation but later ends it based on its impact on other employees? A recent decision from the North Carolina Court of Appeals concludes that employers are not permanently required to maintain accommodations that the employee prefers.
In Rittelmeyer v. Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the plaintiff was a UNC employee who suffered from extreme sensitivity to light. Any exposure over minimal light levels resulted in migraine headaches. UNC spent several years attempting to accommodate the plaintiff’s condition through a variety of measures including reducing ambient light in the common office area, as well as steps taken to block light exposure in the plaintiff’s specific work station. One of the initial steps involved turning off all overhead lights in the office, and requiring each employee to use personal lighting in their work area. When the plaintiff’s coworkers complained about their inability to work under these conditions, UNC abandoned this approach in favor of accommodations aimed at protecting the plaintiff from light exposure in her cubicle.
The plaintiff continued to complain about the ineffectiveness of the measures taken, and requested ever increasing reductions of light in the general office environment. When UNC failed to agree to these requests, it contended that the plaintiff stopped participating in the interactive process, and abandoned her employment. She sued, claiming failure to provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA.
Most ADA claims are litigated in federal court. The plaintiff pursued her claim through the state’s administrative system, resulting in subsequent review by state courts. The North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the administrative determination that UNC had complied with its obligations to the plaintiff under the ADA. Among its other findings, the court stated that by making the initial decision to turn off all overhead lights in the office, UNC was not permanently bound to continue this accommodation. Employers are required under the ADA to provide an effective accommodation, not one that the disabled employee prefers. If the ADA required employers to permanently maintain an accommodation once it is put into place, employers would only provide the bare legal minimum, out of fear that doing more would forever compel them to continue such measures.
In this case, once UNC determined that the initial accommodations resulted in interference with other employees’ work, it was entitled to take other measures that addressed the plaintiff’s disability. The plaintiff kept demanding additional steps, and rejected others that were offered such as working from home. Employers participating in the ADA interactive process should remember that they have the option of testing various measures. If these first steps end up creating an undue hardship, the employer can end them in favor of another approach toward accommodation.