Court Holds Obligation Arises Even Without A Request To Do So

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers engage in an “interactive process” with employees to determine whether an employee’s disability can be reasonably accommodated. A federal appellate court recently held that an employer failed to engage in this process when it did not initiate the issue of accommodation with an employee whom it allegedly perceived to be disabled. Brady v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 06-5486-cv, Second Circuit Court of Appeals (July 2, 2008).

Factual Background

Patrick Brady, a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy, had worked successfully for two years at a local pharmacy prior to applying for a job in the pharmacy department at a Wal-Mart store in New York. During the hiring process, Brady signed a document stating that he could perform the tasks associated with the position of a Wal-Mart pharmacy assistant, “either with or without a reasonable accommodation.”

Brady was hired for the job, and was instructed to stock pharmacy merchandise and hand out prescriptions. However, Brady’s supervisor immediately appeared to be unhappy with his performance, and told him to “speed it up.” While he worked slowly, Brady did not hand out the wrong prescriptions nor did he require assistance from anyone to perform the job.

After numerous requests for his schedule for the upcoming week, Brady was told that he was being transferred out of the pharmacy. He also was informed that the only available position at that time was collecting shopping carts and garbage in the parking lot.

After Brady’s transfer, his father met with the assistant store manager to discuss the situation. The manager mentioned that new employees typically undergo a training period and that Brady had not been provided sufficient time to learn the pharmacy job. However, he then transferred Brady to the food department, where Brady was not provided with instructions or training. Brady also was given hours that conflicted with his community college schedule, even though he had notified Wal-Mart of his limited availability at the time he applied. The following day, Brady quit his job.

Brady then sued Wal-Mart under the ADA and state law alleging that Wal-Mart had failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found in Brady’s favor on several claims, including his failure-to-accommodate allegation. Based on its findings, the jury awarded damages to Brady that ultimately amounted to $600,000 in compensatory damages, and $300,000 in punitive damages.

Legal Analysis

On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a number of issues, including whether the trial judge erred in denying Wal-Mart’s motion for judgment on Brady’s failure-to-accommodate claim. Wal-Mart argued that because Brady had not requested an accommodation and had testified that he did not think he needed one, the trial judge should have granted judgment as a matter of law on that claim. The Second Circuit disagreed, holding that while it is generally the responsibility of the disabled individual to inform the employer that an accommodation is needed, an employer that is aware of (or perceives) a disability is obligated to provide a reasonable accommodation for that known or perceived impairment. Thus, the jury verdict in Brady’s favor was upheld.

Practical Impact

According to Maria Greco Danaher, a shareholder in the firm’s Pittsburgh office: “This holding has the potential to complicate an already unsettled issue, specifically when – as in Brady’s circumstance – an employer views an employee as disabled but the employee does not perceive himself to need an accommodation. Employers should be aware of this interpretation of the ADA’s requirement for an `interactive process’ and should request assistance from both HR and legal counsel when faced with an impaired employee who might require a reasonable accommodation to perform his or her job.”

Note: This article was published in the July/August 2008 issue of The Employment Law Authority.

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