Both the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities to allow or assist them in performing their duties, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Historically, an employer’s duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is triggered by an employee’s specific request for an accommodation. Once such a request is made, at least under the ADA, the employer is legally obliged to engage in an “interactive process” with the employee. This interactive process, a term of art coined by the EEOC, requires employers to analyze job functions, identify the barriers to job performance in consultation with the employee to learn the employee’s precise limitations, and to explore with the employee, and/or the employee’s health care provider, the types of accommodations that would be most effective.
Most courts have held that a request for an accommodation from an employee with a disability is a “predicate requirement” to the interactive process for determining whether a reasonable accommodation can be made and what that accommodation will be. Neither the ADA nor the MHRA requires an employer to speculate about the accommodation needs of employees and applicants.
That, however, is not the requirement under the ADA in the federal Eighth Circuit, which governs eight midwestern states, including innesota. In Kowitz v.Trinity Health, a hospital respiratory therapist returned to work after undergoing spine surgery and exhausting her 12-week FMLA leave. She returned to work under a temporary lifting restriction. The hospital initially accommodated this restriction, but eventually terminated her employment after she advised that her doctor’s restriction would run for four additional months, preventing her from completing the physical portion of the “basic life support” recertification process, a departmental requirement.
The Eighth Circuit Court rejected the hospital’s argument that she was not entitled to a reasonable accommodation on the recertification requirement because she did not ask for it. The Court concluded that this was one circumstance where consideration of an accommodation was so obvious that an express request for an accommodation from an employee was not necessary to trigger an employer’s duty to discuss the reasonable accommodation option. The court held, “Though [the employee] did not ask for a reasonable accommodation of her condition in so many words, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to [the employee], her notification to her supervisor that she would not be able to obtain the required certification until she had completed physical therapy implied that an accommodation would be required until then.”
Bottom Line: If an employer knows enough facts about an employee’s disability to make the employer aware of the possible need for a reasonable accommodation, the employer is legally obligated to engage in the interactive process to determine if such an accommodation is possible without posing an undue hardship on the employer.
Bill Egan is a seasoned Employment Law Attorney backed by over 33 years of proven, veteran experience. He specializes in navigating businesses through conflict resolution in the workplace.