Why it matters

An employee who repeatedly failed to return telephone calls and provide information needed to understand her job restrictions was responsible for the breakdown in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) interactive process, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently ruled. A social worker regularly required to write and document her work suffered a hand injury. She was placed on rest, underwent a series of follow-up exams, and returned to work while continuing treatment. The information she provided the employer did not indicate what specific accommodations were necessary to perform her daily tasks. When the employer sought additional details, the employee failed to respond to multiple phone calls and a letter. She filed suit instead, asserting failure to accommodate in violation of the ADA. The federal appellate panel affirmed summary judgment for the employer, holding that the employee was responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process.

Detailed discussion

As a social worker at Fresenius Health Partners, Gloria M. Ortiz-Martinez was required to regularly write and document various aspects of her work, including documentation of all interventions and services she rendered to patients and completion of a monthly report for each patient under her care.

During the course of her employment, Ortiz-Martinez suffered a hand injury while preparing written notes in her patients’ files. She was placed off of work for approximately one year as she underwent follow-up exams. She then sought to return to work as she continued treatment.

Ortiz-Martinez provided her supervisor with a form from her doctors indicating her diagnosis and that she was cleared to return to work while her treatment continued, but did not indicate what specific accommodations were necessary to assist her in the completion of her daily tasks. Her supervisor advised her that without additional information about the specific accommodations she was requesting, Fresenius would not be able to reinstate her.

The employee obtained a letter from her doctors that stated she needed to “be provided with an occupational adjustment” and suggested giving her short rest periods during her workday. Seeking more information, Fresenius then attempted to contact Ortiz-Martinez on multiple occasions by phone as well as by letter. Even after her union representative advised her the company was trying to reach her, Ortiz-Martinez did not contact Fresenius or attempt to further communicate her accommodation needs.

The parties managed to connect for a meeting in which Fresenius reiterated the need for additional information concerning Ortiz-Martinez’s medical restrictions, with questions such as the maximum weight she could lift, the frequency and duration of rest periods required, the kind of repetitive movements to be avoided, her capacity for using her hand at the level required to perform her essential duties as a social worker, and any other specific recommendations.

Ortiz-Martinez never responded, and instead filed suit alleging that Fresenius failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed.

The interactive process, which varies depending on the circumstances of each case, “requires both the employer and employee to engage in a meaningful dialogue, in good faith, for the purpose of discussing alternative reasonable accommodations,” the panel wrote. Courts look for signs of failure to participate in good faith or the failure by one of the parties to make reasonable efforts to help the other party determine what specific accommodations are necessary.

Rejecting Ortiz-Martinez’s argument that Fresenius’s request for additional information was excessive and unrelated to her work requirements as a social worker, the court found the plaintiff responsible for the breakdown of the interactive process.

“The burden is on Ortiz-Martinez to demonstrate in the first instance what specific accommodations she needed and how those accommodations were connected to her ability to work,” the court said. “Notwithstanding this burden, here the record is rife with uncontested facts demonstrating that Fresenius continually attempted to engage in the interactive process in good faith, while Ortiz-Martinez refused to meaningfully engage after submitting an initial letter from her doctors … and attending a meeting.”

Fresenius’s request for more information “was reasonable and important” to determine the type of accommodations the plaintiff required, the panel added. Questions such as how much weight Ortiz-Martinez could support with her hands and how long or frequently she needed breaks throughout the day “were directly relevant to the accommodations she would need and her duties of daily desk and personal computer work,” the panel said.

Simply expressing her desire to be reinstated was insufficient to demonstrate that she meaningfully engaged with the interactive process in good faith, the court explained. “A declaration of a desire to return did not assist Fresenius in probing the contours of her physical limitations in order to fashion an appropriate accommodation and Fresenius’s failure to offer her any type of accommodation due to a lack of sufficient information cannot be the basis of liability—Fresenius committed no error in attempting to clarify her needs so that it could properly accommodate her,” the court said. “We therefore conclude that Ortiz-Martinez’s failure ‘to make reasonable efforts to help [Fresenius] determine what specific accommodations are necessary’ caused the breakdown in the interactive process. Consequently, her failure to cooperate in Fresenius’s attempts to identify the proper accommodations precludes a finding that the company is liable for the failure to accommodate.”

To read the opinion in Ortiz-Martinez v. Fresenius Health Partners, click here.

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