Human Resources News & Insights

How to legally question a staffer’s disability accommodation request

What should you do if you doubt an employee’s need for a disability accommodation?

You have several options — as long as you don’t do what this company did.

April Rodriguez, a 34-year-old mother of four, worked as a customer service representative for a waste disposal company.

She asked her company for some time off and potential work accommodation to deal with panic attacks that she suffered.

Rodriguez testified that her manager was skeptical of her claims, saying she was faking it to get more time off. She was eventually fired.

So Rodriguez sued, claiming disability discrimination.

Instead of settling, the company decided to take the case to trial — and you might be able to guess who the jury ruled in favor of.

Rodriguez was awarded $21.7 million. That included $16.5 million in punitive damages and $5.2 million in compensatory damages.

5 action steps

Yes, this company could have done a lot more to try to confirm Rodriguez’ claims of panic attacks.

But there’s a good possibility you’ll still run into times where you’ll question an employee’s claimed disability.

When that happens, use these five tips, courtesy of Jon Hyman from the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog and the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • Request “reasonable documentation” about an employee’s disability if it’s not obvious. (Note: You cannot do this if the disability is obvious.)
  • Don’t ask for an employee’s complete medical records. Companies are only allowed to request documentation to establish that a disability needs a reasonable accommodation.
  • Require that the documentation come from an appropriate health care or rehabilitation professional.
  • Ask employees to “sign a limited release allowing the employer to submit a list of specific questions to the health care or vocational professional.”
  • If you want to bypass documentation, speak with the employee about his or her disability and the functional limitations will suffice.
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