A common scenario often faced by employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) involves an employee's request for time off as a reasonable accommodation. In Basden v. Professional Transportation, Inc., No. 11-2880 (7th Cir, May 8, 2013), the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals provides guidance in this area. There, the court explained that the employer was not liable under the ADA, even though it failed to engage in the interactive process, because the employee failed to show that the requested accommodation (a 30-day leave) would have resulted in her ability to perform the essential functions of the job.
Employee Two Weeks Shy of Leave Entitlement
Professional Transportation, Inc. (PTI) provides 24-hour ground transportation services. Terri Basden was hired as a dispatcher in June, 2007. After numerous absences in 2007 and early 2008, she received a verbal warning for absences in March 2008 and a written warning for further absences in April 2008.
Basden provided doctors' notes reflecting that she had been referred to a neurologist with a possible diagnosis of multiple sclerosis after emergency room tests showed brain abnormalities indicative of the disease. After several job transfers, Basden was granted a request for a part time position on May 1, 2008. She incurred additional absences in May which resulted in suspension. While on suspension, Basden submitted a request for a 30-day leave of absence due to "complications due to medical illness (MS)." PTI policy provides employees with one year of service may be eligible to take a 30-day, unpaid leave of absence. However, Basden had not been employed for one year. PTI denied her request for leave, and thereafter terminated Basden when she failed to return to work following her suspension.
Employee Could Not Show Leave Would Enable Her to Perform Essential Functions
Basden sued PTI, claiming that PTI violated the ADA by terminating her instead of accommodating her request for 30 days leave, that PTI failed to engage in the interactive accommodation process required by the ADA, and that PTI did not show that the requested leave was unreasonable. The district court granted summary judgment for PTI.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit first observed that an employee's request for an accommodation under the ADA requires the employer to engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation. In this case, the employee requested a 30-day leave that, according to the employer's policy, she would have been eligible for with two weeks' additional seniority. The court noted that PTI's response to this request, specifically, failing to engage in an interactive process, denying the leave, and terminating her, was not an appropriate employer response under the ADA.
However, the court held that PTI's actions did not violate the ADA. The failure to engage in the interactive process is not an independent basis for liability under the statute, and in any event, such a failure is actionable only if it prevents identification of an appropriate accommodation. Thus, even if an employer fails to engage in the interactive process, that failure need not be considered if the employee fails to show that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job with an accommodation.
Here, PTI cited regular attendance as an essential function of Basden's job. Yet, Basden did not demonstrate that she was able to come to work regularly at the time of her termination, or that her regular attendance could have been expected either following the requested leave or with any other accommodation. Therefore, the court held, summary judgment for PTI was appropriate on the ADA claim despite any shortcomings in PTI's response to Basden's request. (Basden also alleged violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which the court also affirmed summary judgment on because Basden had not worked for PTI for 12 months at the time of her leave request and thus was not eligible for leave under the statute.)
Identify and Document Essential Functions
Of course, employers should continue to comply with their obligations to engage in the interactive process. However, as this case suggests, the obligation to explore and provide accommodation does not necessarily extend to accommodations that are or would be futile and would not enable the employee to perform essential functions. This case highlights the importance of well-written job descriptions that clearly set forth essential job functions. An employer's identification of and ability to prove essential functions of the job can be used to guide the interactive process and its obligations to provide accommodation under the ADA, and can play a key role in defending a lawsuit under the ADA.