In Noll v. Int’l Bus. Machs. Corp., 13-cv-4096 (2d Cir May 21, 2015), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the extent to which, under the ADA and New York State law, an employee must be provided with the precise accommodation he or she requests and whether, if the employer offers a different type of accommodation, its failure to engage in a further interactive process suffices to establish a disability discrimination claim. In Noll, the Court found the employer (IBM) did not have a duty to provide the most effective accommodation, but rather simply an effective one, and, given that it offered a reasonable accommodation, did not have a duty to engage in a further interactive process.
Noll, who is deaf, worked as software engineer for IBM. Throughout his employment, IBM provided Noll with multiple accommodations, including onsite and remote American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreters, internet-based real-time transcriptions, and video relays services. Despite these services, Noll complained about the delay (often five minutes or more) in receipt of transcripts and lack of on-screen translation of videos and, thus, requested that IBM provide, at the time of posting, intranet videos in captioned form and transcripts for all audio files. IBM declined to provide such additional accommodations.
In his suit, Noll alleged IBM’s failure to provide the accommodations he requested amounted to disability discrimination under federal and New York State law. The district court granted IBM’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that IBM reasonably accommodated Noll by providing ASL interpreters. Noll appealed.
The Second Circuit affirmed dismissal of Noll’s claims. In answer to Noll’s argument that there was a genuine factual dispute about the effectiveness of the accommodations IBM provided, the Court found: (a) the ADA and NYS law only require an effective accommodation, not the most effective accommodation for each employee; and (b) no factual dispute existed as to whether the translation services worked (rather than worked at the speed and with the convenience Noll desired). In answer to Noll’s argument that IBM failed to engage in the interactive process regarding his additional translation requests, the Court found the ADA and NYS law impose no liability for an employer’s failure to explore alternative accommodations where the accommodations provided to the employee were plainly reasonable. Although this case was not decided under the New York City Human Rights law – generally a more liberally construed pro-employee statute – it serves as a reminder to employers that engaging in an interactive process and offering an effective accommodation to disabled employees (even if not the specific accommodation requested) can be a powerful tool to insulate employers from disability discrimination liability.