Thursday, October 19, 2023

Failure to advise employer of a disability dooms employee’s ADA claim

True or false — An employer must always reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability if necessary to permit the employee to perform the essential functions of the job unless it causes an undue hardship on the employer?

Answer — False. An employer does not have an obligation to grant a reasonable accommodation that an employee never requests.

Case in point: Mueck v. La Grange Acquisitions.

Clint Mueck, a La Grange employee, had a drinking problem. He was alcoholic with a history of off-duty DUI convictions, three to be precise. Following his third conviction, the court ordered him to attend a three-month substance abuse course that included weekly discussion groups.

Mueck met with his supervisor and manager to explain his situation and told them that he was looking for co-workers to cover any working hours that conflicted with his DUI classes. At no time did Mueck disclose his alcoholism, only that he had to attend court-ordered classes because of a DUI. With his manager's help, Mueck found substitutes for all but four of his evening classes. When nobody covered those shifts, La Grange fired him.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of Mueck's ADA failure-to-accommodate claim. "Failure to request an accommodation," the 5th Circuit wrote, "particularly where an employee's disability is not obvious, will doom a claim." The court further explained, "The employee who needs an accommodation because of a disability has the responsibility of informing his employer."

In this case, Mueck failed to meet that responsibility, which excused any ADA obligation of the employer to offer a reasonable accommodation. He never informed La Grange that his request for time off was because of to a disability — alcoholism. Instead, Mueck had only advise of his need to deal with the consequences of his DUI by attending a court-ordered program. Thus, the court affirmed the dismissal of Mueck's ADA claim.

The lesson here is an important one for employers — unless the need for an accommodation is obvious, an employer has no legal obligation to offer an employee a reasonable accommodation that an employee does not request.