Employers may experience increased difficulty obtaining dismissal of disability discrimination claims on summary judgment as courts apply greater scrutiny to employers’ decisions to deny employees’ requested accommodations. Accordingly, employers are encouraged to focus their attention on proactively identifying the “essential functions” of specific positions and  reexamining the “interactive process” by which they evaluate accommodation requests in order to avoid and defend against future claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”).

Traditionally, New York state and federal courts have accorded deference to an employer’s business judgment as to what functions of an employee’s position are “essential” — that is, those functions an employee must be able to perform, with or without a reasonable accommodation, in order to state a claim. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8), 12112; N.Y. Exec. Law § 292(21). Recentdecisions, however, suggest that courts are beginning to curtail this deference.

New York courts appear to be applying greater scrutiny in analyzing the extent to which an employer engages with an employee in an “interactive process,” which is required once an employee requests an accommodation.

In Jacobsen v. New York City Health & Hospitals Corp., 22 N.Y.3d 824, 836 (2014), the New York Court of Appeals went so far as to hold that summary judgment is precluded under the NYCHRL unless an employer can show that it “engaged in a good faith interactive process that assesse[d] the needs of the disabled individual and the reasonableness of the [accommodation] requested.” The implications of Jacobsen are potentially far-reaching and may result in fewer dismissals of reasonable accommodation claims, prolonging the time and expense associated with litigation.

Employers are encouraged to take the following steps to avoid and defend against disability discrimination claims and increase the likelihood of having such claims dismissed at the summary judgment stage:

  • Evaluate Your Process. Revisit the process by which requests for accommodations are reviewed and, if not already in place, implement a formal process for considering accommodations. Be sure to consider both the needs of the individual employee and the reasonableness of the accommodation requested.
  • Document the Process in Writing. Document the steps taken during the interactive process and the ultimate outcome in writing; this documentation should demonstrate that the employer considered both the employee’s individualized needs and the reasonableness of the request and provide the rationale for granting or denying the accommodation. Communicate this information in writing to the employee requesting the accommodation.
  • Update Job Descriptions and Employment Policies to Reflect Essential Job Functions. Courts look to job descriptions as a non-dispositive but relevant evidence of the essential functions of an employee’s job. Employers should consider updating job descriptions and employment policies to clearly identify essential job functions and to reflect the rationale behind the identification of such functions as essential.
  • Consider Non-Traditional Accommodations, Such as Telecommuting. Employers are encouraged not to summarily deny requests for telecommuting or other unconventional accommodations, but rather to evaluate such requests in the context of an individual’s needs and specific job functions, and engage in a well- documented interactive process prior to granting or denying such a request.