When Is the Accommodation Duty Triggered?
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit addressed this question under the Rehabilitation Act (which applies to federal agencies, contractors and subcontractors, but applies the same standards of analysis as the Americans with Disabilities Act), stating, “The type and extent of information that an employee must provide will depend, of course, on the particulars of the case.” But there are general rules that will apply.
In Owens v. State of Georgia, Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, following a C-section, the employee told her supervisor that she was experiencing childbirth-related complications and provided a doctor’s note that she “may” (but not “must”) tele-work for several months. She was provided with reasonable accommodation paperwork for her and her physician to complete. She was fired when she failed to provide the paperwork or return to the office. She then sued, alleging, among other things, violation of the Rehab Act’s accommodation obligations.
The Eleventh Circuit addressed when an employer’s duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is triggered, requiring an employee to (1) make a specific demand for accommodation and (2) demonstrate that the accommodation is reasonable. The second part of the test requires the employee to put the employer on notice of the disability requiring accommodation and provide enough information to allow the employer to understand how the accommodation would address the limitations imposed by the disability. Although an employee may not rely on “vague or conclusory statements revealing an unspecified incapacity,” the informational burden is “modest,” requiring only the identification of a statutory disability and a general explanation of how a particular accommodation would assist the employee.
In the present case, the employee failed to provide this information. Her identification of her C-section and blood transfusions is not a disability, but rather medical procedures and treatments, with no obvious limitations. The doctor’s recommendation for telework, although qualifying as a request for accommodation, failed to explain how the accommodation would alleviate any physical or mental limitations. This was not enough to trigger the accommodation obligation.
This case reminds employers that, where the disability is not obvious, it is both advisable and necessary to require employees – and their doctors – to provide sufficient information to establish the existence of a disability and its limitations, and to explain how any proposed accommodation would address those. Moreover, as the Eleventh Circuit also noted, employers should further remember that they need not necessarily provide the requested or preferred accommodation – the law requires an employer to provide an effective one (and it need not even be the most effective one, as long as it enables the employee to perform their essential job functions).