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Heyl Royster

 

Good Faith: Key Component of the Response to a Request for Reasonable Accommodation of a Disability

2/18/19

By: Jim Nowogrocki, jnowogrocki@heylroyster.com

A recent decision, Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights, from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Missouri, demonstrates the importance of an employer engaging in a good faith interactive process when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation of a mental or physical disability.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), once an employee with a qualified disability makes a request for reasonable accommodation, an employer is required to take some initiative in examining the request, engaging in communication with the employee and ultimately making a decision whether the accommodate request would constitute an undue hardship for the employer.

In the federal case, an employee worked as an accountant for a small municipality. He had contracted a bacterial disease; underwent three life-saving surgeries; spent nearly five months in a hospital/nursing care facility, and suffered from long-term injuries.

Reasonable accommodation requests

Subsequently, the employee requested reasonable accommodations including: return to his original position; that he work a graduated return-to-work schedule; and, that he be allowed to work remotely from home.

The City responded that the employee could not return to his original position, nor could he work from home because he could not perform the essential functions of his new position from a remote location. The City instead offered to allow him to work at City Hall four hours per day. The employee did not accept the City's invitation and did not return to work. He then filed a lawsuit against the City alleging that it failed to engage in good faith and grant him a reasonable accommodation.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in favor of the employer finding:

[T]he City engaged in an interactive dialogue with [the employee] for months regarding his return to work. During that time, the City extended his leave multiple times, made multiple requests for information regarding what accommodations he required, and offered accommodations consistent with his doctor's restrictions. There is no genuine issue of material fact that the City engaged in anything but a good-faith interactive dialogue.

Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights, No. 17-3238, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 3426, at **12-13 (8th Cir. Feb 4, 2019).

The Court of Appeals also considered the employee's request that he be allowed to work remotely even though he could work at City Hall, but that it "would have been easier" to work from home. The Court held that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee based on the employee's preference, noting that an accommodation need not be plaintiff's preferred choice, but must only be reasonable.

By way of contrast, other federal courts have found that an employer hinders the interactive process when: the employer knows about the employee's disability; the employee requests accommodations or assistance; the employer does not in good faith assist the employee in seeking accommodations; and the employee could have been reasonably accommodated but for the employer's lack of good faith.

The key take-away is: engaging in a good faith dialogue after an employee’s request for reasonable accommodation is a strong defense to lawsuits alleging disability discrimination and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

For more information concerning reasonable accommodation and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Missouri Human Rights Act, or the Illinois Human Rights Act, contact an attorney in the Heyl Royster Employment & Labor Law Practice Group.