On October 17, 2016, in a case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a disabled employee may be entitled to “reasonable accommodations,” even if she does not expressly request specific accommodations, so long as she makes her employer aware of the need for an accommodation. Thus, in overturning the district court below, the Eighth Circuit sided with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s long-standing position that an employee can trigger the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligations without having to explicitly ask for a particular accommodation.
In order to bring a discrimination action under the ADA, a plaintiff-employee must demonstrate that: (1) she has a “disability,” as defined by the Act; (2) she is a “qualified individual” under the Act; and (3) she suffered an adverse employment action as a result of her disability. As defined by the ADA, “qualified individual” means that the employee possesses the requisite skills, education, experience, and training for her position, and that she “be able to perform the essential job functions, with or without reasonable accommodation.”
The question before the Eighth Circuit was whether the plaintiff-employee could have performed an essential function of her job with an accommodation and, if so, whether the employer had failed to reasonably accommodate her. In that case, the plaintiff, an employee of Trinity Health (“Trinity”) in North Dakota, began working for Trinity in 2007 as a respiratory therapist in the cardiopulmonary department. She later assumed additional duties as a lead technician in the blood gas laboratory.
In July 2010, the plaintiff requested leave to have corrective neck surgery. When she returned to work in mid-October of that year, she provided Trinity with an order from her physician outlining her physical restrictions. The order form stated that the plaintiff could only work eight-hour shifts and could not lift heavy objects. Trinity initially accommodated the doctor’s orders. However, in November 2010, the plaintiff’s supervisor posted a memorandum addressed to the cardiopulmonary department stating that all department employees must update their basic life support certifications (i.e., CPR certifications). The supervisor’s memorandum informed each department employee that if he or she was unable to update his or her certifications by November 26, he or she would need to submit a letter indicating the reasons for the delay and the late date by which he or she would have the recertification class completed.
Renewal of the basic life support certification required both a written examination component as well as a physical demonstration of CPR. The plaintiff submitted a letter to her supervisor on November 30, indicating that she would be unable to complete the physical demonstration until cleared by her doctor. However, the next week, the plaintiff’s doctor determined that the plaintiff would need at least four additional months of physical therapy before she could complete the physical portion of the recertification. The plaintiff immediately relayed these instructions to her supervisor; however, she was terminated the following day for her inability to perform basic life support.
On appeal, Trinity argued that the plaintiff did not meet the definition of a qualified employee under the ADA because the ability to perform basic life support was an essential function of her job. Weighing the relevant factors (including job descriptions for the plaintiff’s role submitted by both parties), the court concluded that maintaining the basic life support certification was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job. However, the plaintiff contended that the ADA required Trinity to reasonably accommodate her temporary disability. For example, Trinity could have allowed the plaintiff additional time to complete her certification, or it could have reassigned her to another position for which such certification was not required.
Siding with the plaintiff, the court noted that when a disabled employee requests an accommodation for her disability, the employee is responsible for initiating (and the employer is required to participate in) the “interactive process” to determine whether a reasonable accommodation is possible. The court determined that the employee can initiate this required process “by making her employer aware of the need for an accommodation.” In doing so, the employee “must provide relevant details of her disability and, if not obvious, the reason that her disability requires an accommodation;” however, the employee “need not use technical language to make the request or suggest what accommodation might be appropriate.” Concluding that a reasonable jury could find that the plaintiff had made Trinity aware of her need for an accommodation, the court reversed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case.
The case is Kowitz v. Trinity Health, No. 15-1584 (8th Cir. 2016).
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