Years ago, I wrote about how state employment law imposed a duty to engage in an interactive dialogue with an employee who had a disability and was requesting a reasonable accommodation.
But what it does it truly mean to engage in an interactive process?
A new case from the Connecticut Appellate Court provides some additional guidance that an employee does not get to dictate all of his preferred accommodations; when an employer offers a reasonable accommodation (particularly of the type initially requested by the employee), that may be enough to escape liability.
In Cooling v. Torrington (officially released today), a former member of a city’s police department sought damages for alleged violations of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act.
The plaintiff, a Marine Corps Reserve veteran, suffered from significant medical conditions, including a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from his military service. He claimed that the city’s police department failed to engage in the interactive process effectively.
Here’s a look as to some of the reasons why the employer was successful in defeating the discrimination claim.
1. Prompt Recognition of the Request: The plaintiff, in February 2017, for the first time, informed the employer that he was suffering from a disability and had used sick leave legitimately due to his disability. The court found that this was the trigger for the interactive process. Thus, HR professionals must promptly recognize and acknowledge accommodation requests, since delays can lead to potential legal issues.
2. Offering a Reasonable Accommodation: Upon learning of the disability, the police department met with the plaintiff and offered an accommodation consistent with the doctor’s recommendation—a day shift position. This action was crucial because it demonstrated the employer’s willingness to engage in the interactive process. It is essential to propose reasonable accommodations that align with the employee’s limitations, as was done in this case.
3. Employee’s Role in the Process: The plaintiff declined the offered accommodation, claiming it was in bad faith because he would lose his K-9 handler role. However, neither the plaintiff nor his doctor had initially included the need to retain his K-9 handler role as part of the accommodation request. The court emphasized that it is essential for employees to actively participate in the interactive process by clearly communicating their accommodation needs.
4. Continuing the Dialogue: After the plaintiff declined the accommodation, there was no indication that he sought further dialogue with the defendant. The court noted that the plaintiff did not seek additional discussions or propose alternative solutions. Thus, the employer had no obligation to continue the dialogue here but in other situations, more may be needed to determine whether any further accommodations need to be provided.
In this case, the court ultimately ruled in favor of the employer, emphasizing that the employer had fulfilled its obligations in the interactive process by offering a reasonable accommodation promptly. The key takeaway for HR professionals is to promptly recognize accommodation requests, offer reasonable accommodations, and encourage open communication with employees to ensure a compliant and inclusive workplace.
Obviously, each case is different, and employers should seek out legal counsel where needed to navigate through this tricky process.