It’s been a nagging and frustrating question for employers for decades now: When it comes to providing reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities, exactly how far do I have to go?
Savvy employers are well aware of the concept of engaging in an “interactive process” of finding a workable accommodation, which essentially entails an obligation to cooperatively assess what can be done.
But the precise contours of this duty remain elusive.
So decisions that shed new light on the issue – like a new one from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia) – are always welcome news for employers.
The decision specifically addresses what information an employee must provide to their employer in order to trigger the employer’s duty to accommodate their disability.
In an employer-friendly ruling, the appeals court said that to trigger that duty, an employee must identify their disability and explain how the accommodation will overcome disability-related limitations.
“The bottom line is that employees must give employers enough information to respond effectively to an accommodation request,” the court said.
The appeals panel added that the type and extent of information that must be provided will vary from case to case. But it also made it clear that the burden is on the employee to give the employer two things:
- sufficient notice of the disability for which accommodation is sought, and
- enough notice to allow the employer to understand how the requested accommodation would help get the job done.
Job accommodation sought
Nicole Owens worked for the state of Georgia’s Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. She was allowed to telework one day a week, but the office’s executive director opposed full-time teleworking because she thought that it impeded effective staff support and supervision.
After she had a C-section in July of 2018, Owens told her employer that she needed to work remotely for several months.
Two notes from her doctor provided only lukewarm support for the request. The notes mentioned the C-section, said Owens was “doing well,” and said she “may” telework until November of 2018.
Owens separately mentioned childbirth-related “complications” that she did not explain in any detail.
That was not enough for the state, which told her to either provide more documentation or return to the office. When Owens did neither, it terminated her employment.
Owens sued, alleging that the state did not accommodate her disability and retaliated against her in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. For good measure, she added a claim of pregnancy discrimination under the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
Lower court: Employer wins
A lower court ruled for the state, finding that Owens did not properly notify the state of her disability or connect any such disability to her requested job accommodation. It also said the state’s given reasons for terminating her employment were not a pretext for unlawful discrimination. Owens filed an appeal.
A panel of the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
The appeals court said that as part of an employee’s initial burden to show that a requested accommodation is reasonable, the employee must place their employer on notice of their disability. Also, the employee must give the employer enough information to let it understand how the accommodation would effectively mitigate the effects of the disability.
That did not happen here, the court said.
Instead, Owens did not specifically identify any disability from which she suffered, it noted. Nor did she explain to the state how teleworking would accommodate any disability she had.
In most cases, the appeals court explained, the employee will need to give the employer some information about how their asserted disability limits their functioning.
The link between the disability and the requested accommodation will sometimes be obvious, the court continued. But where the link is less clear, it is the employee’s duty to provide more information.
While squarely placing that burden at the feet of the employee, the court also said it expects the “employee’s informational burden to be modest.”
Owens neither identified a qualifying disability nor explained why teleworking would accommodate her, the court said.
The bottom line
As a best practice, employers should feel free to engage cooperatively with employees to identify potential accommodations. But they are not obligated to extend accommodations when employees do not make the basic showing that they have a disability.
Owens v. State of Georgia, No. 1:19-cv-05683-MHC (11th Cir. 11/9/22).