Failure to Return Calls or Specify Accommodations Doom ADA Claim

April 17, 2017

Affirming summary judgment against a social worker’s failure-to-accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the First Circuit found that, even assuming she had a disability, she was the one responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process because she repeatedly failed to return the employer’s calls and failed to provide the specific information needed to determine how to accommodate her lifting and other restrictions due to carpal tunnel and other problems with her hand and shoulder.

A year of rest for hand injury. As a social worker for a dialysis treatment center, the employee was required to regularly write and document various aspects of her work, including the interventions and services she provided to patients. She also completed a monthly report for each patient under her care. During her employment, she suffered a hand injury while preparing written notes for patient files. She saw a physician with State Insurance Fund (SIF) and was placed on rest for about a week. Thereafter, she had a series of follow-up appointments and extensions to her rest period. Nearly a year later, when her rest period was extended yet again, she asked SIF if she could return to work while continuing treatment. Her doctors agreed and she reported to work on July 18, 2013.

Not enough info on restrictions. Upon her return, she provided her supervisor with a copy of the SIF form indicating she had been diagnosed with a sprained left shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand, as well as bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. The SIF form stated she was cleared to work while she continued treatment, but it did not indicate what specific accommodations were necessary to help the employee perform her daily tasks. The supervisor asked for more information and SIF provided a letter which detailed the employee’s condition and symptoms, stated she had difficulty with repetitive tasks, lifting, holding, pulling, and gripping. However, SIF did not suggest any accommodations other than rest periods, nor even specify what weight limit the employee could hold or provide other details sufficient for the employer to come up with accommodations.

Employee didn’t respond to inquiries. Following receipt of the letter, the employer tried multiple times to call the employee but she did not answer and did not call back (she did not have voicemail). The employer then wrote a July 26 letter asking her to contact the company to discuss how best to accommodate her injury, but she claimed that she never received the letter. She filed an EEOC charge on July 26. On August 2, her union rep called her and told her the employer was trying to reach her. She claimed that she saw no such calls or letter, but even with the head’s up from the union, she still did not call the employer.

Finally on August 6, the employee met with the employer to discuss accommodations and they asked for more information on her medical restrictions. She told them to ask SIF. The employer did so the very next day, writing to ask the medical provider for “specific information regarding the recommended restrictions, such as the weight or amount in pounds that the employee may lift, the frequency and duration of the rest periods, the repetitive movements she must avoid,” and more. SIF did not respond. The employer then sent the employee another letter, stating it was interested in continuing the interactive process but was unsuccessful in reaching her doctors at SIF. It requested information, such as the maximum weight she could left and the frequency of necessary rest periods. She did not respond (she claimed she didn’t receive the letter) and did not return to work. Instead, she filed suit under the ADA.

Employee caused breakdown in interactive process. Affirming summary judgment against the employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim, the appeals court found that even assuming she had a disability within the meaning of the ADA, she was the one responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process. The court explained that the Act “requires both the employer and employee to engage in a meaningful dialogue, in good faith, for the purpose of discussing alternative reasonable accommodations.” If an employee fails to cooperate in the process, then the employer cannot be held liable for failing to provide reasonable accommodations.

Here, the employee claimed she was not responsible for the breakdown in the process because she “manifested her desire to be reinstated,” but the employer failed to offer any sort of accommodation. However, the appeals court noted that it was her burden to show, in the first instance, what specific accommodations she needed and how they were connected to her ability to work. Here, the “record was rife with uncontested facts demonstrating that Fresenius continually attempted to engage in the interactive process” but the employee refused to meaningfully engage after she submitted her initial doctor’s letter and attended an August 6 meeting. The mere fact that she expressed that she wanted to be reinstated was not enough to show meaningful engagement in the interactive process.

Furthermore, the employer’s request for more specific information—such as how much weight she could support with her hands and how frequently she needed breaks—was reasonable and important to determine the type of accommodations the employee required. Because the employee failed to respond to the employer’s attempts to communicate and did not specify what accommodations she might need, her ADA claims failed as a matter of law.