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Disabled Workers Should Complete Interactive Process with Employer for Accomodation

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers offer disabled employees a reasonable accommodation to allow them the opportunity to continue working. An employer must engage in an interactive process with to determine what type of accommodation would be acceptable to both employer and employee. But what if the employee quits before that process is complete. Can she succeed with an ADA lawsuit claiming that no reasonable accommodation was offered?

No, according to a D.C. Circuit ruling last week. Ella Ward was an attorney with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) who served as an attorney adviser for appeals of veterans' benefit claims. Her only physical duty was to carry sometimes unwieldy case files. In 2005, she began to suffer chronic severe lymphedema of the lower right extremity, which caused her leg and foot to swell. The condition substantially limited her ability to go up and down stairs, carry moderately heavy case files, and travel to and from work. It was exacerbated by long periods of sitting at a desk. Treatments to manage the condition took one to three hours.

She sought an accommodation allowing her to work full-time from home, and provided the VA with two physicians' letters supporting her request. However, her supervisors asked for additional information to use in determining a reasonable accommodation..

In 2006, Ward converted to part-time status for a few months to receive treatments at a hospital. After returning to full-time status, she took FMLA leave. By her own admission, she struggled to meet the expectations of her job. In 2007, Ward's condition worsened and she first requested accommodation. In April, she presented her supervisor with a letter from her doctor outlining her medical treatments. The letter concluded that Ward "will benefit from a schedule that allows her to work from home." On May 3, she met with supervisors to discuss her request. The supervisors asked for more detail about her condition. In response, Ward submitted a letter from a second doctor containing information about her condition, and requesting a "work-at-home" accommodation.

Ward's supervisor told her to consider working part-time because he was concerned that she could not maintain a full-time schedule given the length of her daily treatments. After a follow-up meeting, the VA sent her a memo stating that it would strive to make a reasonable accommodation, but raised concerns about the work-at-home arrangement. The memo did not state any decision on the Ward's accommodation request. Ward did not respond to the memo, but instead tendered her resignation. Contending that she had been forced to resign because of the VA's discriminatory actions in denying a reasonable accommodation, she filed suit. The district court granted summary judgment to the VA on her claims.

The Court of Appeals found for the VA. The D.C. Circuit concluded that the VA's participation bore all the hallmarks of good faith. Ward's supervisors promptly responded to her request for an accommodation, met with her on several occasions to discuss the request, and sought more information from her physician to help them determine an appropriate accommodation. Ward did not provide the requested information, but instead resigned. Thus, the interactive process broke down when Ward "walked away." No reasonable juror could have found that the VA denied her request for an accommodation because Ward abandoned the interactive process before the VA had the information it needed to determine the appropriate accommodation.

The takeaway: If you have a disability and request the reasonable accommodation to which you are entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act, be sure to fully cooperate with your employer's interactive process in finding an accommodation. Failure to complete the process could jeopardize your claim.

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