Friday, October 17, 2014

Reasonable Accommodations Is a Process, Not a “One-Off” Event

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires covered employers to provide effective “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities.  Employers are required to engage in an “interactive process” with employees to determine effective reasonable accommodations.  Cloe v. City of Indianapolis, 712 F.3d 1171 (7th Cir. 2013).  The Cloe case illustrates for employers that if a given accommodation is no longer effective, the employer is required to re-engage in the interactive process with employee and explore alternative accommodations.

The Cloe case involved an ADA claim filed by a worker against the City of Indianapolis after she was terminated for poor performance.  During Cloe’s employment, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis which made it difficult for her to walk.  Her doctors requested that she be provided nearby parking to accommodate her condition. Cloe filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the City had failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodation Analysis

In analyzing whether the City has provided the employee with effective reasonable accommodations, the Court focused on the time line of events leading up to the employee ultimately receiving a permanent parking pass.  In April 2008, the employee mentioned to her supervisors that she was having trouble walking from the parking garage.  Cloe did not specifically request an accommodation based on her trouble walking at that time.

On July 2, 2008, Cloe submitted a list of medical restrictions to the City which indicated that “specified parking is preferred, if possible,” and that “if required to park at a distance, Cloe will walk back to the office at her own pace.” After receiving the restrictions, the City assigned Cloe to a lot directly across the street from the City-County building.

On September 25, 2008 while Cloe was waiting to receive this pass, she submitted a doctor’s note stating that she could not walk long distances, and that she needed to park at the City-County building.

Correspondence followed on October 17, 2008 with Cloe thanking several City employees for working hard to get her a parking spot close to the building, but the new spot had not worked out because she frequently had to park on the far side of the lot and walk almost a full extra block to work.  In response, the City offered to meet to discuss alternative accommodations.

On November 10, 2008, a visitor’s parking placard for the underground lot immediately below the City-County building became available.  Cloe was given the placard the following day, along with a special placard allowing her to park at nearby parking meters without paying.  Despite the City’s efforts, the visitors’ lot and parking meters were often full.  Cloe brought this issue to the City’s attention and in early December 2008, after a City employee left, she received this employee’s permanent underground parking spot.

On appeal, Cloe contended there was no reason for the City not to have given her a permanent parking spot immediately.  She claimed the delay demonstrated that the City did not act reasonably to accommodate her disability in violation of the ADA.

Reasonable Accommodation Process

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting that reasonable accommodation “is a process, not a one-off event.”  712 F. 3d at 1178.  After reviewing the time line of events, the Court found the accommodation process began on July 2, 2008, when Cloe submitted the list of medical restrictions requesting a parking accommodation.  The Court observed that, upon receiving an accommodation request, “an employer is not required to provide the exact accommodation request.”  Instead, “the ADA obligates the employer to engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine the appropriate accommodation under the circumstances.”   Under the ADA, if the interactive process fails to lead to reasonable accommodation, responsibility rests with the party that caused the breakdown. Id.

The Court found the interactive process did not break down in this case.  Rather, once the City was informed of Cloe’s needs, it provided her with parking at a lot closer to the City-County building.  When this accommodation did not work, Cloe received a pass to park directly underneath the City-County building and another pass to park at a nearby meter parking.  When this accommodation failed, the City provided Cloe with a permanent underground parking spot once one opened up.  The Court held, “this is exactly the sort of interactive process that the ADA calls for.”  Id.  Importantly, once the City learned that its proposed accommodations were insufficient, it acted with reasonable speed to come up with new ones. Based on this evidence, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer on this claim.