Employer Defeats ADA Claim by Engaging in Interactive Process

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Michigan, recently rejected an employee’s failure to accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the employer appropriately engaged the employee in the ADA’s interactive process. Brumley v United Parcel Service Inc, Case No. 18-5453 (November 30, 2018). While this result is not surprising, it serves as a reminder of the importance of engaging qualified employees with a disability in the interactive process to discuss reasonable accommodations, even if an agreement on a reasonable accommodation is not reached.

Melissa Brumley worked for United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS) as a warehouse sorter and as a temporary driver, as needed. The written job descriptions required lifting packages in excess of 70 pounds. Brumley injured herself on the job while lifting heavy packages and went on partial worker’s compensation. UPS gave her a temporary assignment while she recovered. When she attempted to return to work, Brumley’s doctor imposed permanent work restrictions preventing her from both lifting more than 30 pounds and driving. Brumley was not allowed to return to work. UPS contacted Brumley to engage her in the interactive process, and sent her three letters before she responded with the requested information.

When UPS met with Brumley to discuss a potential reasonable accommodation, Brumley stated that she would see her doctor and have her work restrictions removed. Brumley did so and returned to work. Several months later, Brumley sued UPS alleging, among other things, that UPS failed to offer her an immediate accommodation after she returned to work with restrictions.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability. Brumley claimed that UPS initially refused to allow her to return to work with her restrictions and that UPS should have accommodated her immediately by allowing her to work.

In rejecting Brumley’s claim, the court noted that the ADA does not obligate an employer to make “on the spot accommodations” of the employee’s choice. Rather, the ADA requires the employer to engage in an “informal, interactive process” with the employee to identify the employee’s limitations and potential reasonable accommodations to overcome those limitations. Once the employee requests a reasonable accommodation, then the employer must engage in the interactive process. While the employer can violate the ADA by unduly delaying the interactive process, the employer’s refusal to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation does not violate the ADA. Where several appropriate reasonable accommodations exist, the employer has the ultimate discretion to select the reasonable accommodation.

The court found that Brumley voluntarily abandoned the interactive process by informing UPS that she would simply have her work restrictions lifted. Had UPS refused to engage in the interactive process or engaged in the process in bad faith, a different outcome likely would have occurred.

School officials must engage an employee in the interactive process if the employee requests an accommodation. This process must be done in good faith. Be mindful that stray remarks related to potential accommodations outside the interactive process can undermine the interactive process (i.e., “we could never allow that,” “it just would not work,” or “you don’t need that.”). Engaging employees in a thoughtful and well informed discussion about the essential functions of their position, their limitations and requested accommodations, along with a school official’s own due diligence to determine potential accommodations, are the hallmarks of the interactive process that will assist schools in complying with the ADA. Engaging a qualified employee with a disability in the interactive process is legally required, but it can also lead to practical solutions.