An employer has obligations when one of its employees requests an accommodation.

In the broadest sense, an employer must grant reasonable accommodations to employees who have disabilities as defined by either federal or state law. Even with this obligation, however, employers can refuse to grant certain accommodations on the grounds that it would cause the employer undue hardship. While this general rule sounds straightforward, applying the principal in reality is complicated and can lead to liability if an employer improperly responds to a request for an accommodation. The recent Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) decision in LaPete v. Country Bank for Savings demonstrates this danger.

Facts of the Case

Amanda LaPete informed her employer, Country Bank, that she was pregnant. Country Bank granted her twelve weeks of leave as required by the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). After giving birth, LaPete suffered from major postpartum depression. LaPete contacted Country Bank in late October to let it know that she needed more time off to attend therapy and recover beyond November 30, the date her leave was scheduled to end. After receiving paperwork from LaPete’s physician and therapist, Country Bank told LaPete that she would be terminated if she did not return to work by December 21. LaPete called her supervisor to let her know that she expected to be back to work by mid-January. LaPete’s lawyer also wrote a letter to Country Bank asking for an extension of leave until at least after LaPete’s next appointment with her doctor in January when a return date could be determined. Country Bank’s only response to LaPete’s call and her attorney’s letter was a letter terminating LaPete on December 22.

How to Respond to Requests for Accommodation

When an employee with a disability requests an accommodation, an employer should have an interactive process with the requesting employee about how the employer can accommodate the disability. An interactive process must include dialogue with the employee in an attempt to identify the precise limitation resulting from the handicap and what potential reasonable accommodations could overcome those limitations. An interactive process requires direct, open, and meaningful communication between the employee and employer.

After engaging in this process, an employer must decide what accommodation to grant, if any. An employer is not required to accept any accommodation that an employee proposes, but it must grant the employee a reasonable accommodation if one is possible. An accommodation is not reasonable if it would create an “undue hardship” for the employer. What constitutes undue hardship is fact-dependent and case-specific. When determining what is an undue hardship, courts look at factors including the nature and cost of the proposed accommodation, the employer’s operation, and the size of the employer’s business in terms of employees, facilities, and assets. An indefinite period of leave is not a reasonable accommodation, but depending the circumstances, an extension of leave of a few weeks may be reasonable.

What Happened to Country Bank

LaPete filed a complaint with the MCAD that alleged Country Bank discriminated against her on the basis of her disability in violation of c. 151B. The MCAD found that LaPete was disabled under the statutory definition and that LaPete’s request for additional leave was a request for an accommodation of that disability. This request for an accommodation gave Country Bank the obligation to engage in an interactive process with LaPete even though Country Bank provided LaPete with the leave required by the FMLA. However, Country Bank never engaged in any interactive dialogue with LaPete nor did Country Bank provide the MCAD with any evidence that LaPete’s request for additional few weeks of leave would create an undue burden on the employer. As a result, the MCAD found that Country Bank violated c. 151B and awarded LaPete $12,197 in back pay and $50,000 in emotional distress damages plus interest.

Conclusion

The fact that Country Bank did not engage in any interactive dialogue with LaPete got it in trouble: had Country Bank discussed what accommodation LaPete specifically requested and what her limitations were, it could have determined whether this request was reasonable or whether another accommodation would be reasonable without causing an undue burden on Country Bank. Simply providing FMLA was not necessarily a reasonable accommodation. Executives and human resource professionals benefit from advice of counsel when faced with a request for an accommodation. If Country Bank had reached out to counsel before terminating LaPete, they may have avoided the expense of litigation and the subsequent judgment.

If you have any questions about how to respond to a request for an accommodation from an employee learn from Country Bank’s mistake and contact one of Conn Kavanaugh’s employment lawyers for assistance.

DANIEL R. FISHMAN

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