In a failure to accommodate discrimination case, Kinch v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant-employer, finding untenable the plaintiff’s claim that his disability was so evident that the defendant was obligated to provide him a reasonable accommodation even though he never asked for one.

Peter Kinch worked for Quest as a specimen processor for twenty-five years. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in the early 1990s. In 2002, his job performance began to decline. He failed to meet Quest’s productivity requirements, took excessive breaks, and showed little initiative. As a consequence, Kinch received poor performance reviews, as well as oral and written warnings. In March 2005, Kinch told his supervisor that he had started a new medication for the treatment of his Hepatitis C. He gave his supervisor a brochure describing the medication’s potential side effects, but did not claim that he suffered from any of them. Kinch’s poor performance continued, and Quest placed him on a performance improvement plan in April 2005. Three months later, he received a final warning. Upon receiving this warning, Kinch informed his supervisors for the first time that his medications were having a negative impact on his work performance. Subsequently, Kinch took a leave of absence from July 2005 to October 2005. Upon his return to work, however, Kinch’s poor performance continued, and Quest ultimately terminated his employment. Kinch filed a lawsuit alleging that Quest failed to accommodate his disability, and Quest moved for summary judgment.

Kinch argued that although he had not requested an accommodation, Quest should have recognized his need for one. In support of his argument, Kinch relied on a statement in the MCAD Guidelines: Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Handicap: “Where an employee has not requested reasonable accommodation, an employer’s duty to offer reasonable accommodation may still be triggered if the employer knows or should know that the employee is handicapped and requires reasonable accommodation.” The District Court therefore considered whether the evidence supported the notion that Kinch’s alleged handicap was so sufficiently “obvious” that Quest had a duty to provide him a reasonable accommodation.

The District Court concluded that Kinch’s need was not obvious. While he gave his supervisor a brochure describing the potential side effects of his medication, he never informed Quest of any specific negative effects that the medication had on his work. Accordingly, Quest could not have perceived Kinch’s alleged handicap and had no obligation to provide reasonable accommodation where none was requested.

This opinion takes a narrow view of an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee who has not made a clear and specific request. It also underscores the need for action when an employer learns of an employee who has a handicap which limits his or her ability to perform assigned work adequately. Notwithstanding this decision, employers are well advised to begin interactive communication with an employee immediately to determine if any workplace modification or adjustment is necessary and reasonably available.