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Case Highlights Importance Of ‘Interactive Process’ For Disability Accommodations

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The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to engage in what is known as the “interactive process” with workers with disabilities who request accommodation to do their jobs.

In this process the employee, his or her health care provider and the employer discuss the nature of the disability, the limitations it may place on the worker’s ability to perform essential job functions and possible solutions.

A recent case from Ohio highlights how critical it is for employers to engage in this process in good faith or risk being sued.

The employee was Jeanne King, a registered nurse at Steward Trumbull Memorial Hospital near Youngstown. In the spring of 2017, King informed the hospital that she couldn’t work because of her asthma, which was exacerbated by seasonal allergies and stress.

Three weeks later, she inquired about an unpaid leave of absence. The administrator who handled leave requests determined King was ineligible for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) but didn’t tell King she qualified for non-FMLA leave for up to a year under her union’s collective bargaining agreement.

The administrator also allegedly received inaccurate information about how many hours King worked in the prior 12 months and wrongly believed that she had already taken too much sick time to qualify for FMLA leave, which apparently delayed the processing of her leave. Though King told her supervisor and HR numerous times that she was trying to apply for leave, the hospital terminated her a few weeks later for “failure to apply timely for a leave of absence.”

King sued the hospital under the ADA, arguing that it failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.

A trial judge ruled against her, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on appeal, finding that the hospital should have known about King’s asthma based on her repeated absences, that her request for leave constituted a request for a reasonable accommodation and that her termination while her leave request was still pending could be seen as a premature halt to the interactive process. Now her suit can proceed to a jury (if her employer doesn’t make an acceptable offer to settle out of court).

The takeaway for employers is to treat any leave request as a request for an accommodation under the ADA, engage thoroughly in the interactive process and be sure to talk to an employment attorney when facing such a situation.