Disability Accommodations, Interactive Processes, and What Constitutes ‘Thwarting’ Those Processes

Every successful disability discrimination case necessarily involves several essential ingredients. You have to have suffered from a qualifying disability. You must have made a request that was sufficiently specific to put your employer on notice that you were seeking a disability accommodation. You also must have engaged in the interactive process in good faith. As you seek to build your failure-to-accommodate case, an experienced Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer can provide you with invaluable aid in securing and presenting the proof you’ll need to succeed.

A North Georgia employee’s case accusing her employer of failing to reasonably accommodate her disability recently scored an important victory in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. While the trial court had sided with the employer, the appeals court reversed that ruling and revived the case.

P.W. worked as a claims examiner in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Atlanta regional office. The examiner, who was also a veteran, had degenerative disc disease in her back and partial paralysis in both her feet. Based on those conditions, the examiner asked for an accommodation regarding her parking spot. Normally, probationary examiners like P.W. had to park in an off-site parking lot one mile from the office; P.W. asked for permission to park on-site.

The examiner allegedly asked her employer on six separate occasions for permission to park in the on-site parking deck. She went to HR and she went to her direct supervisor, but the employer never approved the accommodation the examiner sought.

The employer, in opposing the examiner’s failure-to-accommodate claim, argued that the first five requests were not specific enough to trigger the employer’s statutory obligation to engage in the interactive process. The employer also alleged that, in relation to the sixth and final request, it requested medical documentation that the employee never submitted. On that basis, the employer asserted that P.W. had thwarted the interactive process.

Evidence of the employer’s response to the examiner’s requests worked against its position that P.W.’s requests were too vague to amount to a “specific” request. The examiner’s first request triggered no fewer than three emails, going from a rehabilitation counselor to the counselor’s supervisor to an assistant director to the regional director. The email to the assistant director stated that “two disabled veterans were being considered for assessment of accommodation needs,”

You Can’t Thwart an Interactive Process Your Employer Already Axed 

Secondly, with regard to the interactive process, one way you potentially can overcome a claim that you thwarted the process is to establish that your employer broke down the process before your alleged instance of thwarting ever occurred.

P.W. made five different requests for an accommodation, spanning from March to July. In those five requests across four months, the employer never took steps to accommodate the examiner’s disability and never initiated the interactive process. That alone potentially could amount to a failure to accommodate in violation of the law.

Furthermore, in response to the examiner’s sixth request, the employer reiterated that “parking is not a condition of employment, nor related to the essential functions of your position,” a phrase that echoed language the employer used in refusing to grant the fifth request. On that basis, P.W. had a valid argument that the response to the sixth request constituted a denial and her failure to obtain medical records in response was not an instance of thwarting the process. (You cannot thwart an interactive process that your employer refused to open.)

Whether you’re needing to make a request for a disability accommodation, you have an employer who has refused to accommodate your disability, or you’re an employer needing to deal with a worker’s disability request, look to the knowledgeable Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert for the answers you need. Contact us through this website or at 404-873-8048 to schedule a consultation.

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