In this era of rapidly evolving technology, information technology (IT) providers frequently staff their employees at locations where their products are being used. IT providers supply their skilled talent to businesses in various industries, such as healthcare or biotechnology, in order to provide technological support for the use of their products. In such cases, a question can arise regarding the extent of an employer’s duty to accommodate an employee’s disability when the employer is not on-site where the work is being performed. A California Court of Appeal recently confronted this issue in an unpublished case, Poll v. Hewlett-Packard.

Background

Leon Poll was employed by Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) as a software engineer. He worked entirely for one HP client, Amgen, a biotechnology company, out of Amgen’s offices. His position did not involve manual labor—rather, he worked entirely from his desk on HP technology solutions.

HP made the decision to terminate Poll’s at-will employment. During Poll’s last week at work, he emailed his supervisor stating that he was experiencing severe pain in the upper right side of his body, attaching a doctor’s note stating that he was “temporarily totally disabled.” As such, the note stated he required a break every 30 minutes and could not engage in repetitive “grasping, gripping, torqueing, pulling and/or pushing.”

Poll sued claiming that during his final week, HP failed to accommodate his disability and that it failed to engage in the interactive process.

Poll testified that HP’s human resources department had accepted his note, that HP had not prevented or discouraged him from taking breaks by anyone, and that the nature of his work had not prevented him from taking breaks. Moreover, Poll did not allege that his position required him to engage in any manual labor. As such, the trial court granted summary judgment to HP on Poll’s claims of failure to accommodate and failure to engage in the interactive process.

The California Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the issue in this case was whether HP—the off-site employer—had accommodated Poll and whether it had engaged in the interactive process in good faith. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s findings. It concluded that Poll had failed to engage in the interactive process by failing to inform HP that his job requirements onsite at Amgen somehow conflicted with his medical restrictions. Only if Poll took this step would HP be required to clarify his responsibilities with the on-site company.

Finding that each party must engage in the interactive process in good faith, the court concluded that Poll was entirely responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process. As a consequence, HP could not be held liable for a failure to accommodate, the court held.

Key Takeaways

This case is instructive for several reasons. First, the duty to engage in the interactive process in good faith is a two-way street. Employees and employers alike must engage with one another over whether the essential functions of a job can be performed with the employee’s medical restrictions and a reasonable accommodation by the employer. Second, businesses that send their employees to work at other worksites may want to emphasize to employees that they must communicate with their off-site supervisor. If the job duties actually assigned by the on-site company (i.e., the one with day-to-day supervisory duties) conflict with the employee’s medical restrictions, it is the employee who has the burden to communicate this information to his or her off-site employer. Here, Poll failed to communicate with HP that he needed a modification of his job duties as a result of the listed restrictions. Thus, Poll could not show a failure to accommodate.