In EEOC v UPS, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") claims brought on behalf of a deaf worker, where issues of fact existed as to whether UPS reasonably accommodated the employee's hearing disability.
UPS employed Mauricio Centeno as a junior clerk in its Accounts Payable Department. Centeno is deaf and his primary language is American Sign Language, with English reading and writing skills at a fourth or fifth grade level. The AP Department held regular staff meetings that Centeno was expected to attend. UPS provided meeting notes to Centeno as an accommodation, which Centeno would receive after the meeting. Centeno notified his supervisor that he did not understand the notes; that he could not meaningfully participate in the meetings because he received the notes after the meetings; and he requested a sign language interpreter. UPS denied Centeno's multiple requests for a sign language interpreter. Instead, UPS arranged for an employee to sit with Centeno and write out notes during the meetings, but Centeno found this accommodation to be inadequate as well. Centeno also sought, and was denied, an interpreter to help him improve his skills with Microsoft Excel, and to help him read and understand a warning that he had received for violating the company's anti-harassment policy.
The EEOC filed suit on Centeno's behalf for failure to reasonably accommodate his deafness. A lower court dismissed the lawsuit, but the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for trial. The Ninth Circuit affirmed a basic but important tenet of ADA accommodation law: an employer has discretion to choose between effective accommodations and need not implement an employee's requested accommodation, if other reasonable accommodations are available that will accomplish the same result. However, the Ninth Circuit held that issues of fact existed as to whether UPS' accommodations in the meetings and with respect to the Centeno's Excel training and reading were reasonable, and whether UPS otherwise sufficiently engaged in the interactive process with Centeno regarding accommodations generally.
This case highlights the fact-specific nature of ADA reasonable accommodation cases. By hiring an employee with a serious hearing impairment and very limited reading skills, UPS became duty-bound to engage in the interactive process and to explore specific accommodations, i.e. reading a written warning, that in many other working environments would simply not be reasonable.