ADA Alert: Employers Continue to Struggle to Figure Out What Accommodations are Reasonable

Posted by Edward Sharkey on Wed, 03/18/2015 - 04:00

We frequently post about ADA lawsuits filed against businesses. Among the most commonly litigated issues is whether a particular employee’s request for an accommodation is reasonable. The issue is important because the law only requires “reasonable” accommodations for disabilities. In a recent opinion, a federal court reminds businesses that what is reasonable depends on fact-specific inquiries, not general rules.

This is not the first occasion on which a court emphasized that evaluating an accommodation is a fact-specific undertaking. Even so, the trial court in the D.C. case made its decision based upon a general rule rather than the actual circumstances of the matter before it.

The suit concerned a budget analyst suffering from depression, anxiety, and insomnia. As a result of these conditions, the analyst had difficulty maintaining the normal work schedule to which she was assigned, and she requested permission to work flexible hours. Despite the facts that (a) the analyst had informally worked a flexible schedule in the past and (b) a co-worker was permitted to work flexible hours, the employer denied the analyst’s request.

The analyst sued, claiming that the denial violated the Rehabilitation Act, the equivalent of the ADA in the context of federal employment. The trial court summarily rejected the analyst’s claim, holding that a flexible work schedule is never a reasonable accommodation.

The analyst successfully appealed. Contrary to a common perception among employers, workers, and even other courts that have decided similar issues in different contexts, the appellate court emphasized that whether a flexible work schedule is reasonable depends on the circumstances.

The fact-specific nature of the inquiry into whether an accommodation is reasonable is one of the reasons that employers have such difficulty avoiding ADA claims. Even though it will eventually be decided on the basis of its specific facts, the D.C. case does serve an important purpose for employers. It is a reminder that, each time an employee with a disability requests an accommodation, it is important to conduct a fact-specific inquiry into the reasonableness of the request.

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