Reasonable Accommodations

I Need My Squirrel at My Desk:  A Reminder about Service Animals vs. Emotional Support AnimalsMany people chuckled when they read the news story about the woman who attempted to bring her “emotional support squirrel” on a Frontier Airlines Flight early in October. However, it is hard not to notice the proliferation of “emotional support animals” — usually dogs or cats, but sometimes turkeys or even spiders. As an employer, what are your obligations when an employee tells you they need to bring an animal to work? Well, as is the case in most employment law questions, it depends.

Service Animals

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is one that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. The most obvious example is a “seeing eye” dog for a blind person, but other examples may include a dog that assists someone in a wheelchair or a dog that is trained to notice when someone is about to have a seizure. The ADA limits service animals to dogs and, under certain circumstances, miniature horses. Importantly, for an animal to qualify, the work or task the animal performs must be directly related to the person’s disability. Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not automatically qualify as service animals under the ADA. An employee can seek to have a service animal in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation. If an employee asks to bring a service animal to work, the employer should follow the regular interactive process. Usually, if the employee has a disability serious enough to require a service animal, the request for one is reasonable, absent any safety or public health concerns.

Emotional Support Animals

The ADA provides no definition of an “emotional support animal.” In many circumstances, these animals are not trained in any specific task, but instead provide “comfort” or emotional support to someone who may have a mental health issue. In some cases, a doctor may state that the animal is necessary for an individual’s mental stability. Emotional support animals are not limited to dogs or miniature horses — primarily because (unlike service animals) the federal law does not provide a definition. Does this mean you can ban emotional support animals from your workplace? Not necessarily. For example, what if an employee brings documentation that he or she suffers from PTSD and a physician states that an emotional support animal will help provide mental stability. If that employee requests an accommodation, you need to treat it like any other similar ADA request. However, unlike a service animal, there may be more room for an employer to suggest other, less burdensome accommodations. For example, instead of the emotional support animal, an employer could offer additional breaks, work from home, etc. It is important to note that unlike a service animal, emotional support animals do not enjoy the same type of endorsement under the ADA.

3 Steps to Figuring Out ADA Reasonable Accommodations for Mental IllnessWhat do you do when an employee discloses that he or she is stressed out and needs a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the requested accommodation strikes you as unreasonable? If you are reading this and thinking “that won’t happen to me—all of my employees are well-adjusted,” think again. The experts tell us that one in five adults is living with a mental illness, and 18 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from an anxiety disorder. This means that if you haven’t yet had an employee disclose a mental disability, it is probably just a matter of time. In my practice I am seeing more and more requests for reasonable accommodations for stress and anxiety and, unfortunately, this is not always an easy process to manage.

We have talked before about your general obligations under the ADA. So, as a brief refresher, here are some steps to follow once your employee says he or she is suffering from a mental disability and needs a reasonable accommodation:

STEP ONE: Engage in the interactive process.

The ADA requires that you engage in an interactive process, so talk with the employee.

  • With which essential functions does the employee struggle?
  • What reasonable accommodations does the employee think would enable him or her to perform those functions?
  • What, if any, restrictions has the doctor provided?

Your first discussion is for you to collect information, so let the employee do the talking. Don’t assume that this employee’s depression/anxiety disorder/PTSD is the same as another employee’s or anyone else’s. You can and should get the employee’s doctor’s input on this. I have found that what employees want and what their doctors say they need are not always the same thing. Keep your questions about the disability job-related and consistent with business necessity. This is a process, so it could take several conversations. Be sure to document it thoroughly.

STEP TWO: Determine if the requested accommodation is reasonable.

A reasonable accommodation enables the employee to perform the essential functions of a job. A request is not reasonable if it eliminates an essential job function, poses a direct threat of imminent harm, or imposes an undue hardship.

Keep an eye on the essential functions of the job. You do not have to remove essential functions and create a new job for the employee. You may, however, have to reassign or eliminate non-essential functions. In assessing whether the employee’s performance of the job poses a direct threat, be objective. Get expert input on whether any proposed changes would work or if they would increase danger. Whether the proposed accommodation poses an undue hardship, such as by dramatically increasing costs or affecting productivity, is also a consideration, but in practice, that can be tough to prove.

Look carefully at the employee’s requested accommodation and if you don’t think it is reasonable, offer an alternative. Again, this is an interactive process. Feel free to get the doctor’s input.

STEP THREE: If you can’t accommodate, is transfer or leave an option?

If you cannot come up with a way for the employee to safely perform the current job, do you have a vacancy in which you can accommodate the disability? You do not have to displace someone or create a new position, but you should consider all vacant positions. If the employee is qualified for the vacant job, offer it as a reasonable accommodation. The employee does not have to compete for the position but does have to take the position as it is—even if it pays less, is on a different schedule, etc. Unlike an FMLA-related transfer, this is not a temporary move.

If you can’t accommodate and have no vacancies, your last resort is to determine if leave is a reasonable accommodation. Ask the employee if taking some leave would enable him or her to return to work and do the job’s essential functions. With mental disabilities, this could be a period of inpatient or outpatient treatment or medication adjustment. You should consider this option even if there is no FMLA available and you don’t have a company leave policy. It should be well-defined (i.e., one week, one month), and you do not have to grant open-ended leave.

If you can’t accommodate, and transfer or leave is not an option, you may have to terminate an employee. Before taking that final step, make sure you have properly documented your process and can prove how reasonable you have been. Of course, I think you should have your employment lawyer on speed dial but at the very least, talk to your lawyer before you terminate.

“I Got the Juice” – Sixth Circuit Affirms Verdict in Favor of Diabetic Employee Alleging ADA DiscriminationEngaging in the ADA interactive process is likely the most significant aspect of managing employees with disabilities. Failing to do so can truly make or break an employer’s ability to protect itself from disability discrimination claims. Employers must remember that one policy or practice does not fit all employees, especially ones with known disabilities. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Dolgencorp, LLC illustrates the dangers of applying neutral employment policies to employees who request reasonable accommodations that may conflict with such policies.

Background

Linda Atkins was a lead sales associate at Dollar General who suffered from type II diabetes and occasionally experienced low blood sugar. If and when she had a diabetic episode, Atkins had to quickly consume glucose to avoid fainting or having a seizure. Because of her condition, Atkins asked her store manager if she could keep orange juice at her register in case of an emergency. The manager told Atkins that Dollar General’s policy prohibited having food at a register. In fact, the “Personal Appearance” policy stated that employees “should not chew gum or eat/drink, except during breaks (which should not be taken on the sales floor, at registers, etc.).”

In late 2011 and early 2012, Atkins suffered two hypoglycemic episodes while she was working alone. Because there were multiple customers in the store both times, Atkins could not go to the break room where she kept orange juice in a cooler. Instead, she took a bottle of orange juice from the store cooler and drank it. After each episode ended, Atkins paid for the orange juice and told the store manager what happened. Nevertheless, when Dollar General’s district manager and regional loss prevention manager conducted an audit and learned about what Atkins had done, they terminated her for violating the company’s grazing policy, which forbids employees from consuming merchandise in the store before paying for it.

Atkins filed a disability discrimination charge with the EEOC, and the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Dollar General alleging failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and discriminatory discharge under the ADA. After Atkins intervened in the lawsuit as a plaintiff, litigation proceeded to trial where a jury found in favor of Atkins on both claims, awarding her over $27,500 in back pay and $250,000 in compensatory damages. The district court awarded Atkins’ lawyers over $445,000 in attorney’s fees and almost $1,700 in expenses. Dollar General appealed.

Sixth Circuit Upholds Jury Verdict Regarding ADA Claims

On appeal, Dollar General first argued that it did not have a duty to accommodate Atkins because she could treat hypoglycemia in other ways, e.g., glucose tablets, honey, candy, or peanut butter crackers. Siding with the jury, the Sixth Circuit stated that the jury could have found that Dollar General’s “Personal Appearance” policy also prohibited employees from consuming Dollar General’s suggested treatment alternatives. More importantly, the Sixth Circuit highlighted that the policy included a disclaimer that permitted disability-related exceptions depending on the circumstances. Despite this disclaimer and Atkins’ request for an exception because of her diabetic condition, her store manager “categorically denied Atkins’ request, failed to explore any alternatives, and never relayed the matter to a superior.” Such a response was not consistent with Dollar General’s duty to explore the nature of Atkins’ limitations, if and how those limitations affected her work, and what type of accommodations could be made. Consequently, the jury had a legally sufficient basis to conclude that Dollar General failed to provide Atkins reasonable alternatives to keeping orange juice at her register.

Regarding Atkins’ discriminatory discharge claim, Dollar General argued that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for firing Atkins, its anti-grazing policy. The Sixth Circuit swiftly discounted this argument, stating that “a company may not illegitimately deny an employee a reasonable accommodation to a general policy and use that same policy as a neutral basis for firing [her].” Furthermore, the Sixth Circuit emphasized that a neutral policy was irrelevant because Atkins had presented direct evidence of discrimination, i.e., failing to provide a reasonable accommodation.

The Sixth Circuit concluded its analysis by refuting Dollar General’s final argument that Atkins did not present evidence of animus toward the disabled. The Court held that proving animus was not necessary and an employer violated the ADA whenever it terminated an employee on the basis of disability. Ultimately, the Sixth Circuit upheld the jury verdict regarding both of the ADA claims, and Atkins prevailed.

Takeaways

This decision does not mean that you cannot apply neutral policies such as personal appearance or anti-grazing to disabled employees. However, employers who apply policies without regard to an employee’s disclosed disability do so at their own risk. Remember that you and your employee are a team that can only succeed when everyone can perform their jobs in a supportive and efficient environment. When faced with an employee who requests a reasonable accommodation, think about the following:

  • Would the requested accommodation violate a policy? Don’t ignore your policies that may prevent you from granting an employee’s request, but think about whether you need to make an exception to enable the employee to keep doing his or her job. If the employee’s request violates a policy, think about alternatives that would not violate the policy.
  • Solicit the employee’s doctor’s input when necessary. If you need a second opinion, get it.
  • Don’t forget that if you cannot provide a reasonable accommodation in an employee’s current position, you should determine if there are vacant positions for which the employee is qualified in which you could provide the accommodation.
  • If you simply cannot grant a requested accommodation, consult with senior management, human resources, and your attorney to assess whether not providing the accommodation would be an undue hardship or whether you can otherwise defend this decision.
  • Finally, document your discussion with the employee, and be sure it is clear that you did all you could to make it work.

Courts and juries like employers who try to figure out ways for disabled employees to keep working. Make sure you fit that mold before you end up in court.