Adverse Employment Actions and Failure-to-Accommodate Claims Under the ADA

The Americans With Disabilities Act has been a part of federal law for 33 years. Despite that long-standing history, the complexity of this area of the law continues to yield compliance problems in workplaces across Georgia and the United States. Given the intricacy of disability law and the high stakes involved (both for a worker with disabilities or an employer,) it is wise to contact a knowledgeable Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer to get reliable answers to questions about your circumstance.

A recent appellate decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has dispensed some good news to both employees with disabilities and employers. The employee in the case, T.B., was deaf and communicated primarily using ASL (sign language.)

When T.B. worked as a materials handler for an auto parts store, he asked his employer for a disability accommodation. Specifically, he sought an ASL interpreter for a variety of employment-related functions, including meetings, training sessions, and a company picnic. As an additional accommodation, he requested test message summaries of his daily pre-shift meetings.

The employer provided neither accommodation so he sued. The trial court threw out the handler’s lawsuit, concluding that the requested accommodations did not relate to the “essential functions” of the man’s job and that the company’s refusal to provide accommodations did not inflict job-related harm.

The appeals court, however, disagreed with that reading of T.B.’s complaint and revived the case. In a win for workers, the appeals court concluded that the standard for proving an adverse employment action and a relationship between the requested accommodation and the employee’s essential job function was not as narrow as the lower court applied.

In determining that the employer was not entitled to summary judgment, the appeals court noted that, according to the handler’s complaint, the daily pre-shift sessions (for which he requested summarization via text message) were mandatory meetings and contained important safety information.

T.B. had testimony from a manager who stated that the pre-shift meetings were an “important” part of a handler’s employment and that a team member not getting all of the safety knowledge disclosed at that meeting would be a “failure.” That was enough to provide the necessary linkage between the accommodation sought and the essential functions of the handler’s job.

In terms of an adverse employment action, the handler alleged that he requested an ASL interpreter to join him during a human resources meeting discussing a disciplinary matter: namely, whether a July 2017 absence was or was not approved. The company didn’t provide an interpreter and, ultimately, took disciplinary action against T.B. that “adversely affected his pay,” according to his complaint.

Adverse employment actions for purposes of an ADA case can be a variety of things, including refusal to hire, termination, suspension, demotion, reduction of hours, reduction of benefits, reduction of pay, and more. In T.B.’s case, his allegations suggested that his lack of an interpreter played a vital role in the employer’s decision to take disciplinary action and that disciplinary action cost him in terms of lower pay. That was enough to meet the adverse action pleading requirement.

A Disagreement With the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

While the appeals court sided with T.B. in his particular case, its ruling also contained some good news for employers. The court rejected the notion that proof of an employer’s failure is, by itself, enough to make out a viable failure-to-accommodate claim. Rather, the court said that proof of an adverse employment action was a necessary component of any successful failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA

This part of the court’s decision could have broader implications. In 2020, the 10th Circuit reached the opposite conclusion, stating that workers pursuing ADA failure-to-accommodate claims do not need to demonstrate an adverse employment action to have viable cases. This “circuit split” between the 10th Circuit and 11th Circuit’s rulings could enhance the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually weigh in to decide the issue.

Whether you’re an employee with disabilities or an employer, it is important to understand what is — and what is not — a violation of the ADA. For sound, experience-based advice about your situation, look to the Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation today to find out how we can help you.

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