Human Resources News & Insights

Court sends clear message on what counts as ‘interactive process’

A new federal court ruling confirms how important the “interactive process” is in dealing with employee ADA accommodation requests. Hint: A mere exchange of letters isn’t going to cut it.

The case involves Brian Braheny, a corrections officer in Pennsylvania. Because he suffered from colitis, an inflammation of the bowel, he asked his employer to accommodate him by assigning him posts with easy access to a bathroom.

Braheny made three requests for accommodation; only on his third request did the employer respond.

The response? A letter asking him to identify the duty assignments he wouldn’t be able to perform if he wasn’t within easy access to a bathroom.

Braheny sent a list, and the employer wrote back denying his accommodation request, saying the aoccommodation would “prohibit you from performing the essential job duties for which you were hired.”

In a statement to the court, a prison official said, “(W)e need to always know that all of our officers can be redeployed to any time, that if something happens we can say, Officer A, you need to go to the yard now, and Officer B, you need to relieve Officer C. We have to know that everyone can do all the jobs in the institution at all times …”

Braheny responded that although he was unable to continually work in positions without ready access to the bathroom, he had no problem working any post in an emergency.

Court focuses on company’s response

The court didn’t rule on whether or not Braheny would have been able to perform in an emergency situation.

It instead focused on the process the employer used to evaluate his accommodation request.

First, the court pointed out, the request was reviewed by an ADA committee, which didn’t bother to seek any information from Braheny’s supervisor.

“In fact, in making its accommodation decision, the ADA Committee never spoke with Braheny, with anyone who worked (at the penal facility where Braheny was assigned), or with Braheny’s doctor or other medical professionals,” the judge wrote.

“It’s doubtful that (the employer) engaged in good faith in the interactive process …” the ruling continued.

Bottom line: The employer’s motion to dismiss the case was denied. That probably means one of two things: an expensive settlement or an expensive trial.

Both of which could probably been avoided if the employer had just bothered to have a couple of face-to-face conversations with the people involved in the accommodation request.

The case is Braheny v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. To read the full court decision, go here.


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