Thursday, February 17, 2022

An employer has disability discrimination problems if the interactive process isn’t interactive

You'd think an employer with the name Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities would know a thing or two about complying with workplace discrimination laws. 

You'd think.

Laura Coomer had a long history of mental health conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder. She worked for Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities ("OOD") as a disability claims adjuster, with a daily work schedule from 7 am - 3:30 pm. She requested, however, to modify her schedule to 8 am - 4:30 pm to accommodate childcare issues. OOD granted her request, but the later work hours caused Coomer to develop more anxiety and an inability to concentrate as the day wore on. Despite intermittent FMLA, her anxiety "continued to snowball." Thus, she asked to return to her original 7 - 3:30 work hours. Her immediate supervisor approved, but the manager refused because of Coomer's ongoing performance issues related to the timeliness of her work.

In response, Coomer made a formal request for the revised work hours as a reasonable accommodation for her anxiety disorder. In support of that request, she submitted a supporting note from her treating nurse practitioner. OOD's ADA coordinator advised Coomer that he needed more information to evaluate her request and provided her its reasonable accommodation form for her health care provider to complete. Her treating psychiatrist completed the form and submitted it to OOD, recommending the earlier work schedule as an accommodation for Coomer's disability. He also authorized OOD to contact him for any additional information. 

Instead, however, OOD denied Coomer's request, stating that "the medical information you provided did not sufficiently substantiate your need to leave the office at any particular time." Coomer stopped working and sued for disability discrimination.

The Court of Appeals concluded that OOD was responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process between it and Coomer over her accommodation request and had therefore discriminated against her.
According to OOD, the undisputed evidence demonstrated that Coomer was at fault in causing a breakdown in the reasonable accommodation interactive process, and therefore her failure to accommodate claim fails as a matter of law. In support, OOD asserts that, after it denied Coomer's schedule change request, it was willing to discuss possible alternative accommodations and to consider additional evidence supporting Coomer's schedule change request. We are unpersuaded. …

An employee who quits before the accommodation request's resolution is at fault for any breakdown in the interactive process, not the employer. … But … the evidence demonstrated Coomer's mental illness prevented her from working past 3:30 p.m. Thus, based on this finding, Coomer requested a necessary accommodation, and further discussions between Coomer and OOD concerning the request reasonably could be viewed as either unnecessary or futile after the denial.

If your interactive process isn't sufficiently interactive, and you choose to ignore the medical information presented by an employee's health care provider in support of a reasonable accommodation request, you have disability discrimination problems. A disabled employee isn't entitled to their preferred accommodation, but they are entitled to an accommodation. Just ask Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.