Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if an employee with a disability requests accommodation, the employer must work with that person to determine if there are reasonable measures that can be taken that allow the employee to perform the essential functions of her job despite the medical issues. Once the employer proposes and the employee accepts an accommodation, the legal question of its sufficiency generally ends. This concept was ratified in a recent decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia).
In Laird v. Fairfax County, the plaintiff was a county employee who developed multiple sclerosis and was unable to continue in her previous job. After discussing alternatives with her, the county agreed to create a new position at the same level of pay that allowed her to work from home. The plaintiff accepted the transfer but later sued, claiming failure to accommodate and retaliation under the ADA because she believed that the new position did not carry the same level of responsibility or opportunity for advancement.
The district court dismissed the claim, and the Fourth Circuit panel unanimously affirmed this dismissal. Although the legal standards for claims of discrimination and retaliation are somewhat different, the court noted that both claims require the plaintiff to demonstrate some form of adverse action resulting from the employer’s alleged activities. In this case, the plaintiff could not demonstrate that her voluntary acceptance of a lateral transfer met this requirement. The Fourth Circuit noted that the plaintiff did not claim in her appeal that she was constructively forced to accept the transfer due to intolerable conditions in her old position.
Employers should fully document employee accommodation discussions, including the employee’s consent to any measures offered. Evidence of voluntary assent to such accommodations can help defeat a later claim of discrimination or retaliation.