Why it matters: An employee who failed to take part in the discussions to find a reasonable accommodation for her type I diabetes was responsible for the breakdown in the process and could not sue her former employer for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. When a full-time sales associate began working swing shifts, the erratic hours of the schedule change aggravated her condition. A meeting to discuss scheduling alternatives ended with the employee cleaning out her locker and leaving the building. Despite a subsequent call from her supervisor to return to work and discuss alternatives, the employee refused and contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which filed suit on her behalf. The First Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer, holding that the employee effectively ignored the employer’s efforts to engage in the process of finding a reasonable accommodation and was therefore responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process. The divided panel – a dissent noted that a reasonable jury could view the facts “very differently” – emphasized the need for “bilateral cooperation and communication” between employees and employers during the ADA’s interactive process.

Detailed Discussion

As a full-time employee at Kohl’s Department Stores, Pamela Manning worked 36 to 40 hours each week in predictable shifts for two years of her employment. In 2010, the company restructured its staffing system nationwide and Manning’s hours became unpredictable, with an increase in “swing shifts” (a night shift followed by an early shift the next day).

The new schedule aggravated her type I diabetes, Manning told her employer, and she provided a note from her endocrinologist requesting that she work “a predictable day shift (9a-5p or 10a-6p)” so that she could better manage her stress, glucose level, and insulin therapy.

Manning met with members of the human resources (HR) department, who had been instructed that while she would still be required to work nights and weekends, Kohl’s could offer a no swing-shift option. When informed that she could not be provided with a consistently steady nine-to-five schedule, Manning became upset. Stating that she had no choice but to quit because she would go into a coma or ketoacidosis if she continued working unpredictable hours, Manning put her store keys on the table, walked out of the office, and slammed the door.

An HR employee followed Manning to the break room, tried to calm her down, and requested she reconsider her resignation and discuss other options. Manning refused, cleaned out her locker, and contacted the EEOC a few days later. Kohl’s made another attempt to reach out to Manning via phone to come in and discuss other alternatives but she refused.

The EEOC then filed suit on her behalf alleging violations of the ADA. A federal district court judge sided with Kohl’s, granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

A divided panel of the First Circuit affirmed.

“If an employer engages in an interactive process with the employee, in good faith, for the purpose of discussing alternative reasonable accommodations, but the employee fails to cooperate in the process, then the employer cannot be held liable under the ADA for a failure to provide reasonable accommodations,” the majority wrote.

After Manning left the meeting with HR, a Kohl’s employee “pursued her, attempted to calm her down, asked her to reconsider her resignation, and requested that she contemplate alternative accommodations. Manning refused, instead confirming that she quit by cleaning out her locker and departing the building,” the court said. The employer followed up with a phone call repeating a request to reconsider her resignation and contemplate alternative accommodations.

“The refusal to give Manning’s specific requested accommodation does not necessarily amount to bad faith, so long as the employer makes an earnest attempt to discuss other potential reasonable accommodations,” the court added. Although Kohl’s refused to provide the plaintiff’s preferred schedule, it was willing to discuss other options – but Manning declined to take part.

“Manning’s refusal to participate in the interactive process is the reason why the record lacks facts regarding what reasonable accommodations Kohl’s might have offered had Manning cooperated,” the panel majority wrote. “We conclude that Kohl’s acted in good faith when it initiated an interactive process and displayed its willingness to cooperate with Manning, not once but twice, to no effect.”

The plaintiff’s refusal to participate in further discussions was not a good faith effort to participate in the interactive process, as required by the ADA. “Indeed, because Manning chose not to follow up with [Kohl’s] offer to discuss alternative accommodations, Manning was primarily responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process,” the court said.

Manning’s choice to resign was “grossly premature,” the court added, as it was based on her own worst-case scenario assumption that Kohl’s would not provide her with accommodations. “Here, Manning not only jumped to a conclusion prematurely, but she also actively disregarded two opportunities to resolve her issues.”

A dissenting opinion declined to “bless as a matter of law a negotiating tactic that is unfair to disabled employees who reasonably believe that they confront imminent serious harm if an accommodation is not provided,” and said that the majority applied “heightened judicial scrutiny for breakdowns in the interactive process only when the employee may have erred.”

To read the decision in EEOC v. Kohl’s Department Stores, click here.