Management's Workplace Lawyers

TOP TIP: Reasonable Accommodation Requests Come in Many Ways

December 30, 2016

Employers should be aware that there are no “magic words” for requests for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A recent case, Cady v. Remington Arms Co., provides a striking example of when communications about an employee’s physical condition may constitute a request for reasonable accommodation. 

In that case, an engineer began experiencing a flare up of longstanding back problems that had not previously impeded his ability to perform his job functions. He informed the company’s HR manager that he was meeting with his neurologist because of back pain and shared with her the results of his MRI. He also informed two supervisors of his back pain, and that it caused him problems in climbing up and down, and in standing on concrete for long periods of time. He further told one supervisor that, while he could continue to perform his assigned physical task of assembling work benches, he needed to “mix it up.” He was terminated for performance issues the next day. The engineer sued, but the federal district court dismissed his claims, finding that he had not notified the company of any disability and had not asked for an accommodation, as required under the ADA.

On appeal, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling. The 6th Circuit rejected the company’s argument it had no notice of a disability because the engineer had only expressed a “concern” about his back and many healthy people worry about their backs. Although the 6th Circuit acknowledged that expressing a vague concern would not constitute notice, the information shared by the engineer specifically about his back surgery, his visit to a surgeon, and the MRI took this out of the realm of a vague concern.

The 6th Circuit also rejected the company’s argument that proper notice was not provided because his complaint about his back was “embedded . . . within a series of other complaints and objections” about other workplace issues. As the 6th Circuit noted, although the litany of complaints may have muddled the complaint about his back, “there is no rule that an employee’s disability notification must stand alone.”

As for the request for accommodation, the 6th Circuit reiterated the well-established rule that an employee has the responsibility of notifying the employer of any limitations arising from a disability and affirmatively requesting an accommodation. The company argued that the employee’s request to “mix it up” was not a sufficiently specific request for an accommodation. As the 6th Circuit noted, however, the employee had provided additional information to the employer that should have been considered – his limitations on his ability to build work benches, along with his request to mix up his work tasks.

What this means for employers is that they need to be very careful in assessing information from employees about their physical condition, limitations and requested changes to normal work procedures or tasks. The employee does not have to reference the words “ADA,” “disability” or “accommodation” before the ADA is triggered. A wise employer will recognize and separate out issues regarding an employee’s health condition from other workplace concerns, and should pay particular attention to references to doctors, medications, surgeries and other medical procedures.