Those Reasonable Accommodation Requests Can Be Pretty Subtle… And Context Matters!


Although employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations only where the employee makes their need for accommodation known, courts have repeatedly held that there are no “magic words” in order to trigger their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals from the Sixth Circuit reiterates this point.

In Yanick v. Kroger Co. of Michigan, a new store manager took over the store the same week the employee, the bakery manager, was diagnosed with breast cancer. From the beginning, the store manager had concerns with the employee’s performance, and there were a number of conversations with and about the employee about her performance. The employee then took a four-month leave for breast cancer treatment. One week after her return, there was a meeting where the employee said she “was struggling and needed some time to get back to normal,” and that working significant overtime the prior week was “hard for [her] physically.” The store manager, however, expressed continued concerns about her performance and told the employee that if things continued, she could be disciplined or fired – or that she could step down. Ultimately, the employee chose to step down to a lower position with less pay and authority. She then sued for failure to accommodate under the ADA, among other things.

The Sixth Circuit held that the employee does not need to actually use the words “disability” or “accommodation.” Rather, the question is “whether the employee communicated a need for an adjustment at work because of a disability.” The Sixth Circuit specifically noted that “context matters,” and “[e]mployers must draw reasonable inferences from what an employee says, bearing in mind the statements’ context.” Here, the Sixth Circuit found that a jury could conclude that the employee made an accommodation request when, in the context of returning from cancer treatment, she said she was struggling, needed time to return to normal, and wanted the chance to get used to all the work again. According to the Sixth Circuit, this could be reasonably understood as a request for a reduced work schedule, which was tied to her disability since she said the job was “hard for her physically.”

The lesson for employers is to consider not only an employee’s words, but also the context in which they are uttered. The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that similar words in another situation might not be enough to trigger the ADA, but here, given the employee’s recent return from medical leave, they were enough. Wise employers will err on the side of getting more information to confirm whether an accommodation request is (informally) being made.