COURT WEIGHS IN ON ADA ACCOMMODATION PROCESS
November 28, 2016
There are perhaps no situations more vexing to those charged with administering human resources functions for any employer than evaluating employee accommodation rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (“ADA”). The ADA, since its passage in 1990, protects employees or candidates for employment from adverse employment action on the basis of a disability. A person with a disability is deemed qualified for a particular employment position if that person can perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.
Critical to the process of evaluating accommodation options is the mutual obligation to engage in what has come to be known as the “interactive process”. This process requires both parties to collaborate with the common goal of identifying a reasonable accommodation which will permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her position. This obligation is mutual, however, it is often the employer who is expected to serve as the driving force behind the process.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Lawler v. Peoria School District No. 150[i] involves an analysis of a school district’s efforts to participate in the ADA’s interactive process in the context of a teacher’s work related injury. Her injury resulted in the recurrence of a prior post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. This occurred while the district was evaluating teachers for a staff reduction initiative. The facts of the case are a bit lengthy, but instructive.
The Facts of the Lawler Case
The Peoria School District hired Lawler as a teacher. When she was hired, the district was not aware of her prior diagnosis of PTSD. She had been diagnosed in 1994 and received regular psychological treatment. By the time of her hire in 1999, her PTSD was considered to be in remission. During the 2009-2010 school year, Lawler experienced conflict with her principal and other teachers in the school and requested a leave of absence. In May 2010, her psychologist stated that Lawler’s mental health had been affected by the work environment and requested that she be given a leave of absence for the remainder of the school year. He also suggested that she be transferred to a different school. Her request for leave was granted for the remainder of the school year and upon her return she was reassigned to a new school.
Her new assignment placed her in a position of working with children with more severe emotional behavioral disorders than at her previous school. Lawler, a special education teacher, expressed concern about her qualifications, but performed well in the 2010-2011 school year. The following school year Lawler was involved in an incident in which a student broke free from a police officer’s hold and collided into Lawler. Lawler suffered a blow to the head and, according to her psychologist, this caused a recurrence of her PTSD. Pursuant to her psychologist’s request, she was provided with a two week leave of absence. She requested that she be transferred, but the psychologist’s note provided to the school stated that she was released to return to work without restrictions. Upon her return, she inadvertently left behind a different letter from her family physician which stated that she could not work in the same school and needed again to be transferred. The transfer was still denied.
After Lawler returned from leave in 2012, she received an unsatisfactory performance evaluation – the first unsatisfactory evaluation in 14 years of employment.
Towards the end of the 2012-2013 school year, Lawler again requested leave due to her mental health. She was granted leave to the end of the school year and was subsequently informed that she and 57 other teachers were not returning the following year as part of a reduction in force. She was selected because she had received an unsatisfactory rating in her most recent evaluation.
Lawler’s ADA Accommodation Claim
Lawler filed suit against the district asserting that the district had failed to accommodate her disability, specifically, when it failed to honor her request for a new assignment.[ii] She earned an unsatisfactory evaluation which she claimed was a direct result of the district’s refusal to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. The district responded that Lawler’s psychologist had cleared her to work without restrictions and therefore, its outright denial of her request for reassignment was not a refusal to consider an accommodation. The district also asserted that it had accommodated her by providing her with a two-week leave of absence.
The Court’s Holding
The Court in this case determined that a jury could find that the district had failed to fulfill its obligations under the ADA to engage in the “interactive process” in a way intended to find a reasonable accommodation. Accordingly, the case was sent back for a full trial on some of the factual disputes in the record. According to the Court, the district’s outright refusal to transfer Lawler was based on two false premises. First, the district had determined that a two-week leave was a reasonable accommodation and therefore the district had fulfilled its responsibility. The Court found this contention to be “frivolous”, particularly because Lawler’s performance continued to decline, according to the district, upon her return. Second, the district failed to follow-up on information that contradicted its belief that she could return to the same assignment, namely the family physician’s note that was discovered.
Based on both of these points taken together, the Court reasoned that the district was obligated to explore the possibilities of other accommodations and could not intentionally keep itself in the dark in order to avoid this obligation. The district knew Lawler requested a transfer, knew that her psychologist had recommended it, and knew that her performance continued to decline following her return to the same assignment after a short leave. These facts taken together required that the district engage in further analysis. Its failure to do so meant that it effectively walked away from the interactive process.
Lessons Learned from this Decision
It is often said that, in the ADA accommodation context, the party who walks away from the process first is the one who loses the case. This means that, as is illustrated in this case, information that comes to the employer’s knowledge – no matter the route it took to get there – must be considered and analyzed in the interactive process. Likewise, employers are cautioned against making medical determinations without obtaining the appropriate medical evaluation. In many cases this requires asking specific questions tailored to illicit medical information that will guide the interactive process.
Employers should also understand that, although it is the case in the ADA’s accommodation process that an employer may choose to elect between two competing reasonable accommodations, this prerogative may only be exercised where the options are in fact accommodations. A particular effort is only an accommodation if it will permit the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. Leave is often a reasonable accommodation, as is discussed here, but only if it removes the barrier to performance. In this case, the employer knew or should have known that the two week leave did not do that, and therefore, it was obligated to further evaluate the circumstances.
This case illustrates something that occurs often. The district may have made the right decision, i.e. that the transfer request was not a reasonable accommodation, but it did not do so on the basis of sufficient information. It could have acquired that information. For example, let’s presume the district followed up and learned that, according to the psychologist, Lawler’s PTSD prohibited her from working in high stress situations involving challenging student populations and that he believed this would be the case for an indeterminate period of time. The district then may have been in a position to determine that all special education positions were highly stressful and required work with at least some challenging students, that therefore only leave was a possible accommodation, and that such a request was for indefinite leave which is not a reasonable accommodation. By adding that information and analysis, the result of this case may have been very different.
The ADA’s interactive process can be daunting, time consuming, and even frustrating. It is nonetheless the employer’s responsibility to follow the process to its conclusion. In that process it is important to remember that every situation is unique to some degree and that the ADA requires case-by-case evaluation. As your legal counsel, we are available to assist in this process if or when it should arise.
For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Geoffrey Lacy (email: firstname.lastname@example.org; telephone: 844.833.0824 toll free), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.
[i] Lawler v. Peoria Sch. Dist., No. 150, 2016 WL 4939538, 837 F.3d 779 (7th Cir. Sept. 16, 2016).
[ii] She made other claims as well but for procedural reasons that are not pertinent to this discussion, only her accommodation claim was before the appeals court.
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