The benefits of being engaging: ADA-style

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Who doesn’t want to be engaging?

Employers, unfortunately, sometimes forget the benefits… and the legal protection… provided by engaging in the interactive process to identify reasonable ADA accommodations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act obligates employers to engage in an interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations once an employee requests a change to their work environment as the result of a disability. On occasion, an employer may reach conclusions about an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions without actually engaging in the interactive process. This can be a costly misstep.

A recent case provides an example: An ambulance company employed a diabetic paramedic who experienced four episodes of low blood sugar. In one incident, the paramedic drove an ambulance erratically before being stopped by police vehicles. During another incident, the paramedic could not administer an IV to a patient en route to the hospital.

Following the last incident, the company’s physician performed a fitness for duty examination and noted that the paramedic’s medical issue could be addressed with proper insulin management and a period of restricted duty. However, the physician could not “guarantee” any further incidents. Without implementing the physician’s suggestion or discussing other accommodations with the employee, the company terminated the paramedic based on “medical events caused from [her] diabetes.”

The paramedic then filed a failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA. Noting that no evidence existed that the company “ever communicated” with the employee about accommodations or otherwise engaged in the interactive process, the federal district court refused to dismiss the claim and sent the case to trial.

A jury awarded the paramedic $123,500 in back wages and $100,000 for emotional distress. Rednour v. Wayne Township, S.D. Ind., No. 1:13-cv-00320 (7/31/15). A private settlement announced on December 22, 2015, added $500,000 in attorney fees and future wages for a total settlement of just under $725,000. Commenting on the case, the paramedic’s lawyer noted, “[o]ne of the fundamental issues” was that the employer did not engage in the interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation.

What steps should an employer take to identify reasonable accommodations?

  • Evaluate the employee’s condition. Get information from the employee, the employee’s physician, and, if necessary, other appropriate professionals to understand the condition and how it affects the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions.
  • Identify the essential job functions that the employee must perform with or without an accommodation. Having a clear, comprehensive, and up-to-date job description is critical to this process.
  • Do not make assumptions about whether the employee can or cannot perform the essential job functions. Rather, engage in a dialogue with the employee about what modifications would help the employee perform the essential job functions. Engage the employee’s physician and other resources, as necessary. Consider whether other options for accommodation are available if the suggested accommodations are not reasonable.
  • Determine if it is possible to provide reasonable accommodations that allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position. Remember that accommodations such as a leave of absence or, if available, light duty may allow the employee to perform job functions within a reasonable time.
  • If an accommodation is identified, put it into place. If it is not possible to provide a reasonable accommodation, communicate that to the employee as well and any employment related consequences.
  • Document the process and outcomes to establish that obligations to engage in the interactive process have been met.

This case illustrates the benefits of engaging in the interactive process when addressing accommodation issues. A reasonable accommodation may or may not have existed for the paramedic in this case, but a jury determined that the employer violated the ADA when it did not engage in the interactive process before reaching a conclusion.

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