A recent decision from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reminds employers of their affirmative duty to engage in an interactive process once an employee raises a medical condition and requests some change to their work environment to accommodate it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act at issue in Harden v. Social Security Administration, protect an employee from discrimination based on a disability, where the employee can otherwise perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Tips for the interactive process are provided below, and next week we will go through a “hypothetical.”
In Harden, a claims assistant who was frequently late notified the SSA about her depression and general anxiety which were causing her problems sleeping and functioning early in the morning. She requested approval to arrive between 9:00 and 9:30 a.m., rather than between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. like other employees, or else to use leave rather than leave without pay or discipline. The claims assistant supplied the SSA some medical documentation, but the SSA found that the documentation did not show that her medical condition kept her from getting to work before 9:00 a.m. The SSA denied the employee’s request for a modified schedule, and disciplined her when she was again tardy.
Based on information about the employee’s medical condition that came out during the EEOC complaint process, the EEOC found that the SSA engaged in discrimination. The claims assistant had a disability that could have been reasonably accommodated with a modified schedule. The EEOC disagreed with the SSA’s argument that medical documentation provided during the complaint process was irrelevant to the SSA’s decision to deny the modified schedule and discipline the employee.
What does Harden teach us? Disability discrimination laws place affirmative duties on employers to engage in a meaningful process after an employee raises a medical condition. Do not cut short the interactive process because the facts will come out eventually. This 4-step process provides a helpful framework for an ADA request.
1. Get the facts: What is the medical condition? Get documentation from the employee’s doctor if necessary (with an appropriate release), including any limitations and potential accommodations. Allow the employee or doctor to provide additional information if you are not satisfied. What is this employee’s job? Identify the essential functions of her position. Is the employee performing the job, except for reasons related to her disability?
2. Decide whether the employee is eligible for an accommodation: Based on the facts, is the employee qualified for the job? Can he or she perform the essential functions of the job, with or without an accommodation? Determine whether the individual has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Is the employee regarded as having such impairment?
3. Have an interactive dialogue with the employee about an accommodation: Ask the employee what he or she wants. Quite frequently, this simple communication can result in a practical, cost-effective solution that works for everyone involved. Can the employee do the essential functions of the job with the employee’s proposed accommodation? Identify other accommodations that may work, and consider the effectiveness of each proposed accommodation. Discuss the cost and burden of each effective accommodation and assess whether it would be an “undue hardship.”
4. Put the accommodation into action: Document the dialogue with employee. Choose and implement an accommodation. Document the expectations on all sides. Inform others of the accommodation, only to the limited extent they must know (such as a supervisor). Ensure confidentiality at all times, and maintain a separate confidential file for the employee’s medical documentation. Reassess the effectiveness of the accommodation after a time.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled recently that an independent contractor may assert a disability claim against an employer under the Rehabilitation Act. Click the link to read the opinion on Fleming v. Yuma Regional Medical Center.
The Rehabilitation Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors. The standards for determining employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act are the same as those used in Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In Fleming, an anesthesiologist who worked as an independent contractor sued the medical center at which he worked, alleging a discriminatory constructive discharge. The trial court dismissed the case on the basis that Fleming was an independent contractor and that the Rehabilitation Act applied only to employee-employer relationships. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Rehabilitation Act provides a cause of action to any individual subjected to disability discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. While the Rehabilitation Act adopts the standards that are applied under the ADA, it does not adopt the ADA's limitation to the employee-employer relationship.
Independent contractors are not considered "employees" for purposes of most employment discrimination laws, and many employers hire independent contractors to avoid potential liability under such laws. Fleming shows that, at least for employers covered by the Rehabilitation Act, independent contractors may still find ways to seek the protections of those laws despite their "non-employee" status. In addition, many employers incur significant tax and other liabilities by misclassifying people as "independent contractors" when they really should be treated as employees. For more information, the Internal Revenue Service offers this guidance for determining whether someone is or is not correctly classified as an independent contractor.