Engaging In the Interactive Process is a Must Under the ADA

Contributed by Jon Hoag

The Seventh Circuit recently upheld a jury verdict against a school district for failing to accommodate a teacher with a disability.  The case can be found at http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/tmp/JR0PJDZT.pdf.  The teacher suffered from a form of depression, seasonal affective disorder, and was granted a 3 month leave of absence based on recommendations from her psychologist and primary care physician.  At the end of her leave of absence her doctor advised that she would not be able to return for the 2005-06 school term.  The school district extended her leave of absence even to include the 2006-07 school term.  On the surface it appeared the school district went above and beyond to reasonably accommodate the teacher’s disability.

However, the teacher filed suit alleging that she provided sufficient information to establish that she could return to work if she were assigned a classroom with natural light, and the school district failed to make this reasonable accommodation. The school district argued that the Superintendent did not receive the letter from the teacher’s doctor stating that she could return to work in a classroom with natural light until late in 2006 after the lawsuit was filed. The teacher was able to show that the letter was delivered to the school district in November 2005 and that she had conversations with her Principal and the Superintendent about the need for a room with natural light.

The jury ultimately found in favor of the teacher based on evidence that the school district was aware of her ability to return to work if the school district made a reasonable accommodation.  The school district did not have any evidence that it engaged in the interactive process to determine if it could provide her with a reasonable accommodation.  The Seventh Circuit upheld the jury verdict finding that there was plenty of evidence to support the jury’s determination.

The case highlights the importance for employers to remain engaged in the interactive process with any employee that might have a qualified disability under the ADA. Although the school district in this case provided a form of accommodation (i.e. an extended leave of absence), the school district ignored the teacher’s accommodation request that would allow her to return to work. The lesson from this case is clear – employers that flat out refuse or reject requests for accommodation without showing a good faith attempt to identify a reasonable accommodation open the door to liability under the ADA.