The interactive process is a crucial step for an employer in dealing with an employee’s request for accommodation of a disability. Failure to conduct and document the interactive process can result in liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the related Connecticut fair employment practice statutes, even when the employee’s initial request might not be reasonable.
Last year the Connecticut Appellate Court described the requirements for an employer faced with an employee’s request for accommodation: the disabled employee must first present a request for accommodation; when the employee suggests an accommodation, the employer and employee must engage in an informal, interactive process to identify the limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations. Both parties must participate in good faith. The employer is required by the ADA to provide a workable accommodation, but not necessarily the accommodation that the employee would prefer.
So an employer that just brushes off a request for accommodation, without engaging in the interactive process, is at risk of a finding of bad faith and a violation of the ADA. On the other hand, an employee who disregards the interactive process and insists on a particular accommodation will not be able to claim a violation of the ADA.
The events in the case of Festa v. East Haven Board of Education, 145 Conn. App. 103 (2013) are a good illustration. A third grade teacher presented a note from her doctor stating that because of “cognitive difficulties,” she could not continue to teach third grade, and sought an accommodation of a transfer to a kindergarten class. Understandably curious as to what sort of difficulties would leave the employee qualified to teach kindergarten but not third grade, the superintendent invited her to provide more information and attend a discussion. She refused, and then failed to show up for work. The Court upheld the superintendent’s decision to terminate her employment.
By following the required process, the superintendent eliminated an issue that would put the school board on the defensive, and placed the burden on the employee to prove that there was a reasonable accommodation, which the employee could not do.