Monday, June 3, 2024

Context, not "magic words," is what matters in judging reasonable accommodation requests, 6th Circuit says

"I'm struggling and need some time to get back to normal. Working 53 hours my first week back is hard for me physically."

That's what Mary Ellen Yannick, a bakery department manager at Kroger's, told Marli Schnepp, her store manager, within a week of Yannick's return from a four-month leave of absence following breast-cancer surgery.

In response, and instead of discussing with Yannick a reasonable accommodation, Schnepp told her that "business was business." If she couldn't hack it, Schnepp told her, she'd have to step down. That's exactly what Yannick did, transferring to a lesser position at another store. She also sued.

The 6th Circuit concluded that because Yanick had just returned from major surgery, her statements about "struggling" and the work being "hard for [her] physically" should have clued Kroger in that she needed an ADA accommodation. The court pointed out that employers should draw reasonable inferences from what employees say, considering the context and the situation.

The court criticized Kroger for not asking Yanick for more details or medical documentation. Instead of brushing off her comments, Kroger should have started a conversation (the "interactive process") to figure out how to help her adjust, even though her doctor released her to return to work without restrictions.

In the end, the 6th Circuit sent employers a clear message — be attentive and proactive when employees hint that they need accommodation. "Magic words" aren't necessary to trigger an employer's reasonable accommodation obligations, and context matters very much.