New York Court Of Appeals Emphasizes Need For Interactive Process When Accommodating Employees’ Disabilities

Jacobsen v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., No. 2014-34 (N.Y. Court of Appeals, Mar. 27, 2014): New York’s highest court recently ruled that an employer’s failure to engage in a good-faith interactive process regarding the reasonableness of an employee’s requested accommodation generally precludes the employer from obtaining summary judgment on disability claims under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws. Jacobsen worked for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) as an assistant health facilities planner, a position that required him to regularly visit construction sites. After a medical leave for an occupational lung disease, Jacobsen’s doctor cleared him to return to work but directed him not to visit construction sites because of potential exposure to environmental dust. Due to his condition, Jacobsen requested reassignment to a position in HHC’s central office. He also requested respiratory equipment to minimize dust exposure when required to visit construction sites. HHC denied the transfer request and placed him on involuntary medical leave for six months, explaining that the transfer was not a reasonable accommodation because Jacobsen’s position required him to visit construction sites. At the end of the six-month leave, HHC terminated Jacobsen’s employment. The trial court and the New York Appellate Division granted summary judgment in favor of HHC, finding that Jacobsen could not perform an essential function of his position. 

The New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that summary judgment was improper because there were factual questions as to whether the employer considered, in good faith, the employee’s requested accommodations. The court noted that, once an employee requests an accommodation, the employer is obligated “to consider whether the burden thus imposed upon employer’s business would be reasonable. In this way, the employer’s response . . . and any ensuing dialogue about the impact of the proposed accommodation on the employer’s business inform the determination of whether a reasonable accommodation exists.” This decision makes clear that, in order to prevail on summary judgment under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws, an employer must show that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether it engaged in good faith in the interactive process to assess the reasonableness of any requested accommodation. Consequently, whenever an employee seeks an accommodation, New York employers should engage in a good-faith interactive dialogue to consider that request in order to avoid potential liability on a failure-to-accommodate claim.

Note: This article was published in the April 2014 issue of the New York eAuthority.


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