Ruling Illustrates the Importance of the “Interactive Process” to Successfully Defend a Failure to Accommodate Claim

The duty to provide “reasonable accommodation” to an employee with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) poses significant challenges and legal risks to employers.  Determining when an employee’s request for a workplace accommodation is “reasonable” and thus must be accommodated, verses an “unreasonable” one that can be rejected by the employer, is often the subject of costly legal challenges.  A recent decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division shows how employers who implement an ongoing “interactive process” as well as offer reasonable accommodations along the way can successfully defend claims of disability discrimination.

The Facts: 

Plaintiff Robin Thomas was employed by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) as a secretarial assistant, a role requiring interaction with co-workers and access to her unit’s files.  In 2000, Thomas was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that was adversely affected by cold and requested a work area without direct exposure to air conditioning.  The DOC accommodated that request.

When the rest of her co-workers were moved from their original office, known as the “Bates” building, to another location, Thomas was initially permitted to remain in a private office at Bates as a form of accommodation.  However,  several years later, Thomas was asked to join her co-workers at the other location.  Thomas filed an ADA accommodation request, supported by a physician’s letter, seeking to remain in Bates, which was accommodated by the DOC.  Two years later, the DOC again advised Thomas that she was being relocated, prompting Thomas to submit a second ADA request, again supported by a physician, requesting not only to remain in her private office at Bates, but also that her work environment be temperature controlled at 75 degrees.  After installing two thermostats and a lock system to ensure 75 degrees was maintained at that office, the DOC again advised Thomas that she would be relocated to her co-workers’ facility.

When Thomas found her new office environment inadequate, the DOC moved her to a semi-private office with a thermostat, but Thomas reported that the temperature could not be maintained at 75 degrees.  In response, the DOC insulated the vents and air conditioning units and provided Thomas with a portable heater.

In 2018, the DOC’s new ADA Coordinator directed that alternative office options would be explored to accommodate Thomas.  After a walk through, Thomas consented to relocating to another unit in a private office with a thermostat and window.  Thereafter, Thomas determined that the space was “unsuitable” because it was located near an electric panel.  In response, the DOC moved the furniture in Thomas’ private office to alleviate any safety hazard.

In October 2018, Thomas filed suit claiming, among other things, that the DOC failed to provide reasonable accommodations in violation of the LAD.

The Court Rulings: 

In the proceedings below, the trial court granted summary judgment to the DOC, finding that a reasonable jury would conclude that the DOC was “engaging fully in good faith and interactive dialogue” as required by the LAD and trying to seek reasonable accommodation for Thomas’ medical condition.  Moreover, the court noted that “time after time when problems developed with proposed accommodations” the DOC was willing to tweak the accommodations and “did not set any line of demarcation with respect to the interactive process” thereby showing a willingness to consider additional accommodation requests.  Finally, the court concluded that “in terms of reasonableness, what more could [the DOC] have done?”  Thomas appealed the trial court’s dismissal.

On appeal, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court.  The Appellate Division observed that “employers must initiate an informal interactive process with the employee” designed to identify potential reasonable accommodations that could be adopted to overcome the limitations of the employee’s disability.  However, the Court further observed that reasonable accommodation does not require the employer to “acquiesce to the disabled employee’s requests for certain benefits” and an employer’s failure to meet an employee’s every demand does not, standing alone, constitute a failure to engage in the interactive process.  Turning to the record before it, the Court concluded that the DOC maintained consistent communications with Thomas and continuously made efforts to address each request she raised.

The Takeaway:

The lesson to be learned from this case is that employers facing a failure to accommodate a claim must be prepared to show that they continued to engage in the interactive process to explore all potential reasonable accommodations.  The interactive process can be an exhaustive, frustrating, and seemingly endless process, but employers who terminate the process before all proposed accommodations are explored in good faith may do so at their peril.  Here, the DOC escaped liability because it was able to show that it did not abandon the process – to the contrary, it made repeated adjustments to the employee’s evolving accommodation requests.

Of course, the interactive process has its limits.  As noted by the Appellate Division, employers need not acquiesce to the disabled employee’s every demand.  However, determining when the circumstances justify rejecting an accommodation request, or terminating the interactive process altogether, should only be undertaken after careful consideration of and advice from employment counsel.

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