As all employers should well know by now, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and many state and local counterparts may require employers to engage in an interactive process in response to a disabled employee's request for a workplace accommodation. A recent ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates why employers have a very strong financial incentive to be proactive in adopting and rigorously enforcing their disability accommodation policies.
In Burnett v. Ocean Properties, decided on February 2, 2021, a wheelchair user employed by a hotel chain call center complained internally that the office's entrance was not accessible to him. It had heavy doors beyond which was a downward slope that caused the plaintiff's wheelchair to roll backwards as the door closed on him, requiring him to exert greater force as he struggled to enter. He asked that push-button automatic doors be installed. The employer did not take any meaningful steps to address the complaint with the plaintiff. Eventually he was injured as he tried to open the door. Still, the employer did not follow up on his accommodation request. The plaintiff eventually filed an administrative charge with the Maine Human Rights Commission. The employer met with the plaintiff at that time, but claimed lack of familiarity with ADA compliance requirements and took no action to address the complaint. The plaintiff eventually resigned and filed suit in federal court when the administrative process was completed.
The plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claim was eventually tried before a jury. He was awarded a significant damages award under the ADA and Maine law, which was ultimately reduced by the trial judge but still eye-opening. The Court of Appeals sustained the award of $150,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress and $350,000 in punitive damages. The decision is silent as to how much the plaintiff was awarded for attorneys' fees, but that amount was presumably significant as well given that the case went all the way through trial and appeal. Of course, the employer almost certainly also paid its own attorneys a large amount to defend the case through trial and appeal.
The takeaway from Burnett is that all of this time and expense could have been readily avoided had the employer engaged in a good-faith interactive process. The employer should have identified the disability and the accommodation sought, and determined whether a reasonable accommodation could have been provided without incurring any undue hardship. That ultimate accommodation could have been what the plaintiff suggested or an alternative that the employer identified. Or it is possible the employer could have legitimately concluded that it could not provide any accommodation without incurring an undue hardship. We will never know because the employer failed to be proactive. What we do know is that by simply ignoring the issue, this employer has learned an expensive lesson. Hopefully, readers of this post can learn the same lesson by absorbing this cautionary tale and avoid similar expense and aggravation while also doing the right thing for their employees.
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