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What "Reasonable Accommodations" Must a Texas Employer Make for Disabled Employees?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of workers who suffer from a number of disabilities. An employer is not allowed to discriminate against an employee on the basis of disability, and in fact must make "reasonable accommodations" upon request. But the ADA does not give a disabled employee free reign to make demands, as a recent decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates.

Court Dismisses ADA Lawsuit Due to Employee's Documented History of "Misconduct"

This case involves a dispute between the City of Austin, Texas, and one of its former employees. The employee supervised a street and drainage maintenance crew. An injury sustained in a car accident rendered him medically unable to work for several months afterwards.

Once the employee's FMLA medical leave expired, the City "allowed him to remain on leave" for several more months. Eventually, the City reassigned him to an administrative assistant's position. The employee said he "didn't know how to do no administrative work," but accepted the new job.

The employee worked about five months in this new position, and he was fired after receiving an "unsatisfactory" evaluation from his supervisor. The supervisor noted the employee was present at work 74 percent of the time and was often "found playing computer games and surfing the internet, sleeping, making personal calls, and applying for other positions within the City."

The employee sued the City alleging it failed to provide him with "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA. A trial court disagreed and granted summary judgment to the City. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court's decision in a published September 16 opinion.

The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the trial court in one significant respect. The trial judge held the City was legally entitled to fire the employee after his FMLA leave expired, and therefore its obligation to make "reasonable accommodation" ended at that time. Not so, the Fifth Circuit explained: "Because it continued to employ him, the City was obligated under the ADA to reasonably accommodate him once he was capable of returning to work." Thus, if the employer chooses to continue to employ a person after his or her leave expires, it is under an affirmative duty to provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA. According to the Court, "[t]his follows from the principle that an employer's obligation to accommodate is triggered when an employee requests an accommodation."

Ultimately, however, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the trial court that the City fulfilled its legal duty under the ADA. The ADA "requires an employer to engage in an interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation for her disability to ascertain what changes could allow her to continue working." The key word here is "interactive," according to the Fifth Circuit. Both the employer and employee must "work together" in "an on-going, reciprocal process" to find an accommodation.

In this case, according to the Fifth Circuit, the employee did not engage the interactive process in "good faith." He accepted the administrative assistant position and then failed to "to make an honest effort to learn and carry out the duties of his new job." An employer is not obligated under the ADA to accommodate an employee's "misconduct," which here included "making personal calls, nonattendance, napping, lying, playing games." The City was not required to accommodate the employee's failure to, as the Court read the record, to "make an honest attempt to succeed in the new position."

An employer is, however, obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to employees under the ADA; and, while this plaintiff was not successful, a failure to do so may mean the employer is liable to the employee. Indeed, the Court here specifically distinguishes the case in which the employer places the employee in a position in which he or she is destined to fail. In that case, says the Court, a plaintiff may well have a viable claim for failure to accommodate under the ADA.

This case illustrates the uncertainty in determining whether or not the employee and/or the employer has fulfilled their respective duties to engage in the interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation.

Have You Been a Victim of Employment Discrimination?

The Fifth Circuit acknowledged there is a risk that employers might misinterpret its decision and try to "elude its obligation to accommodate a disabled employee by giving him a job that he was destined to botch with or without training." The court was very careful to emphasize the facts suggestion employee misconduct in this case supported judgment in favor of the employer. But there are many other cases where an employer does not make a good faith effort to engage the interactive process required by the ADA. If you find yourself in such a situation and need help from a central Texas employment lawyer, contact the Moreland Law Firm, P.C., today at (888) 985-4087.

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