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Connecticut Supreme Court Rules that Employers Have Implicit Duty to Accommodate Under State Law – Part I

Posted in CHRO & EEOC, Discrimination & Harassment, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation

In a case that automatically vaults to the top of important disability discrimination cases in Connecticut, the Connecticut Supreme Court today held, in an issue of first impression, that employers have a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation to disabled workers under state law, even though the law does not explicitly say so. 

While the Americans with Disabilities Act applied this rule to employers under federal law for employers of 15 or more employees, small employers have been exempt from it, leaving workers only with the protection of a vague state law (Conn. Gen. Stat. 46a-60(a)(1)) prohibiting "physical disability" discrimination. 

The case, Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc., was released earlier today, although practitioners are cautioned that it is not "officially" released until April 15, 2008. 

Although the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities has applied this rule for years to their view of cases, the Connecticut Supreme Court had yet to decide the issue, leaving employers (to which the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply) with the thorny question of whether or not they had an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation.  Certainly, some did; but others may not. 

The court’s rationale is fascinating and I’ll explore it more in upcoming posts.  Although the Connecticut statute was put in place almost two decades, the court said it was appropriate to still look to federal law for guidance. Since the reasonable accommodation requirement appeared in federal law, it was appropriate — in part — to add it here. There’s more to the decision, of course, and I’ll recap more later.

While the decision itself should be one that employers can follow, what’s fascinating is that the Court has ignored various bills that have been proposed over the years at the legislature to add reasonable accommodation language to the statute.  After all, if the legislature "thought" such a requirement was already there and that was its "intent", why are there bills proposing adding such language?

For example, a 2004 bill would have changed the definition of "physical disability" to mirror the language.  A 2002 Senate bill called "the Preservation of Disability Rights" would have introduced language of a "qualified individual with a disability" that would have required reasonable accommodation. 

I’m not suggesting that its bad policy to add this; that’s up to the legislature and/or the courts. But it seems a stretch to add a "reasonable accommodation" requirement to state law, when legislature never thought it important enough to do so itself. 

The Court then applies federal reasonable accommodation provisions (such as the interactive process) to the case at hand.  It also addresses the issue regarding light duty accommodation and what an undue hardship is.  I’ll explore these provisions in future posts as well.

Until then, the case should be required reading for small employers in the state and their attorneys. 

  • Charles Krich

    There could be any number of reasons why the General Assembly chooses not to act on a particular bill or, in this case, bills. That’s why the general rule is that bills that are introduced but never voted on don’t form part of a law’s legislative history. Cases that say that or variants on that theme include Conway v. Wilson, 238 Conn. 653, 679-80 (1996) and State v. Miranda, 245 Conn. 209, 230 n.24 (1998); I think CHRO v. Cheshire Bd. of Ed. may say that as well, or at least something very close. So I don’t think the Court did anything amiss by not referencing these bills. I would have been more surprised if the Court had.
    What I didn’t see in the Court’s opinion was any reliance on the legislative acquiescence doctrine. While that doctrine normally applies to court decisions that are not overturned by legislation–the thought being that if the General Assembly didn’t act it must agree with the decisions–it has been applied to decisions of administrative agencies, most notably the CHRO in CHRO v. Sullivan Associates, 250 Conn. 763, 783 (1999). As the Court notes in Curry, the legislature would have had a long time in which to act, as CHRO decisions recognizing a duty to accommodate span more than a decade.
    20+ years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court did something remarkably like what the CT Supreme Court did here in Alexander v. Choate, 469 U.S. 287 (1985), where the Court read a reasonable accommodation requirement into the Voc Rehab Act of 1973. Courts are still doing so, such as Henrietta D. v. Bloomberg, 331 F.3d 261, 273 (2d Cir. 2003). So even if you object to the use of the ADA, with its accommodation-specific language, as a model for 46a-60, I think the Court could still have gotten to the same place using Alexander.
    (Incidentally, I am speaking here as a member of the public and not as an employee of the CHRO, where I have worked for many years. I have not been authorized to speak for nor am I speaking on behalf of the agency.)

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    Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. – Part II; Reviewing the Court’s Logic

    Yesterday, I provided some highlights about the important case of Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. (can we all just agree to call it Curry v. Goodman?) The case is the first appellate decision in Connecticut that applies the reasonable…

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    Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. Part III – Duty to Engage in “Interactive Process” Found in Connecticut Law

    In prior posts here and here, I’ve discussed an important new Connecticut Supreme Court case released this week, Curry v. Allan S. Goodman, Inc. and the effect it has on providing disabled employees with "reasonable accommodation".However, th…

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