Employee’s Conduct Caused Breakdown in Interactive Process, Defeat in 11th Circuit ADA Case

A new ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals offers some encouragement for employers and useful knowledge for employees. The recent decision made it clear that, in disability discrimination cases, the obligation to engage in an interactive process requires each side to interact meaningfully with the other. In this case, a disabled employee’s failure to participate in the process in a good-faith manner ultimately doomed her Americans With Disabilities Act violation claim against her employer.

The employee in the case was Kimberly Agee, a worker in Mercedes Benz U.S. International, Inc.’s auto assembly plant in northern Alabama. After breast cancer surgery, Agee developed pain in her arm, and, as a result, her doctor placed her on a 15-pound lifting restriction. The employer moved Agee around to various jobs in the auto shop that accommodated her lifting restriction.

In the spring of 2012, Agee became pregnant. Her doctor imposed limitations on lifting, pushing, pulling, and also on working more than 40 hours in a week. After seeking more details from the worker’s doctors but failing to get a satisfactory response, Mercedes told Agee that it could not accommodate an indefinite 40-hours-per-week restriction and placed her on unpaid family medical leave. The employer sent Agee FMLA paperwork, asking her either to return this paperwork or to get her weekly hours restriction lifted by her doctors and provide written proof to that effect. The employee did neither, and Mercedes terminated her.

This termination triggered a disability discrimination lawsuit by Agee. The employer sought a summary judgment that the trial court granted. Agee appealed, but the 11th Circuit sided with the trial court. In the lower court, Mercedes had argued successfully that mandatory overtime was an essential job function of positions like the one Agee held. The law allows employers, in certain situations, to declare mandatory overtime an essential function of a job, depending on that employer’s business needs. In Mercedes’ case, it was up-front with its auto assembly plant workers that some amount of mandatory overtime was necessary to maintain production schedules.

Another fatal flaw in Agee’s case was her failure to participate in the interactive process in a good-faith manner. Mercedes sent her FMLA paperwork, which she did not fill out. The employer asked her to obtain additional information from her doctors about the specific nature of her physical restrictions so that it could investigate finding an appropriate accommodation for her, but Agee did not do that either. Mercedes had proven that it was willing to work with Agee on all her restrictions, including the 40-hours-per-week cap, during the duration of her pregnancy. It was only the indefinite no-overtime restriction at which the employer balked, and, even then, Mercedes tried to initiate an “an expanded discussion to see if some other type of restriction” would meet Agee’s medical needs without affecting an essential function of her job. The employee, however, did nothing to interact meaningfully with her employer. When the employer takes reasonable steps to foster an interactive process, but the employee’s conduct creates a breakdown in that process, the employer cannot be liable under the ADA, the court stated.

The ADA imposes clear obligations on employers to reasonably accommodate disabled employees, but it does not demand that an employer face liability when the employee is the one who is refusing to participate in the interactive process in a good-faith way. Whether you are an employer or an employee, the knowledgeable Georgia disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have the skills and experience to help you with your ADA case. Our attorneys have many years helping both employers and employees navigate the legal processes associated with ADA issues.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

11th Circuit Says Employer Not Required to Adopt Reporter’s Suggested Disability Accommodations, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 24, 2016

Lack of Proof that Employer Knew About Employee’s Disability Dooms ADA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 20, 2016

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