Why it matters

How long is too long for an employer to grant an employee's request for accommodation? A three-month delay and the need for multiple reminders raised enough questions for a California federal court to allow an employee's disability discrimination claim to move forward. Piyush Gupta experienced back problems due in part to frequent business trips and requested two accommodations: to fly business class and use a prescribed sit/stand desk. The business class request was approved for longer flights but IBM took more than three months to grant approval of the ergonomic desk and only did so after Gupta had been designated to be let go as part of a reduction in force. While the court granted summary judgment for the employer on Gupta's Fair Employment and Housing Act disability bias claim, the manner in which IBM handled the ergonomic desk request potentially violated its duty to engage in a good faith interactive process and failure to accommodate under state law, the court determined.

Detailed discussion

Piyush Gupta began working for IBM in May 2009. By 2013, he was a vice president of product management and took frequent and extended business trips, which contributed to his development of back problems. In early 2013, he discussed with his supervisor and a senior vice president his discontent with his current position and consideration of a new role or a potential exit strategy from the company.

Not long after, his physician recommended that to alleviate some of his back problems, he fly business class and prescribed him a sit/stand desk. Gupta formally requested both accommodations and IBM granted the request to fly business class on flights longer than six hours.

His supervisor informed him of a coming reduction in force (RIF), and when she asked for suggestions, he told her that if she had to lay off many people, she should probably put him on the list, too. During this time, the desk request was approved by IBM's ergonomic expert and nurse but waited approval by Gupta's supervisor. His supervisor then informed him that she was going to take him up on his suggestion and include him in the RIF. A few weeks later, she granted the approval for the sit/stand desk.

Gupta filed for short-term disability and declined to sign his severance package, electing to file suit against IBM. In his state court complaint, he alleged disability discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), disability discrimination in the failure to engage in a timely, good faith interactive process, failure to provide disability accommodation, fraud in the inducement, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

IBM filed a motion for summary judgment.

First considering the disability discrimination claims, U.S. District Court Judge Edward J. Davila sided with the employer. Gupta offered no argument discussing how his termination was due to his disability, the court said, and the record demonstrated that several allowances were made for it—the employer granted his request to fly business class and he was able to work from home, for example.

The employer also presented a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his termination in the form of a RIF and no evidence of pretext existed. Although the timing between his requests for accommodation and termination was close, the court said IBM had been aware of Gupta's back problems since 2011 and he volunteered himself for the layoff. Although he argued his volunteering was a spontaneous remark made in the heat of the moment that neither he nor his supervisor took seriously, the court said it was reasonable to believe that the supervisor relied on his statement when she selected him for the RIF.

Turning to the claim for failure to engage in a timely, good faith interactive process to accommodate the plaintiff's disability, the court reached a different conclusion. The more than three-month delay for his ergonomic desk request to be reviewed and approved—only after he had been informed he was selected for the RIF—validated his allegations, Gupta said. IBM argued that the short delay in processing the request reflected nothing more than the routine processing of an accommodation request by a large corporation.

"Based on the record, it appears that it took 3 ½ months—and three reminders—for [Gupta's supervisor] to approve Plaintiff's request for ergonomic furniture," Judge Davila wrote. "In addition, [his supervisor] approved the request while knowing that Plaintiff was already selected for layoff, and there is no indication that [she] alerted Plaintiff that he would be ineligible to receive the ergonomic furniture due to the layoff. As such, there is a triable issue of fact as to whether IBM participated in a timely, good faith interactive process."

Further, the court denied the employer's motion with regard to the failure to provide disability accommodation claim. Again, the court found the argument that the more than three-month delay in approving the sit/stand desk request could constitute a failure by the employer particularly in the absence of evidence from IBM that the employee failed to engage in good faith discussions. "Plaintiff continued to inquire about the ergonomic furniture even after the date of separation," the court said, with evidence that Gupta continually inquired about the desk.

"[T]he court cannot determine whether the 3 ½ month delay in approving the ergonomic furniture request is 'reasonable,' " the court added. "The record does not provide information on how long IBM typically takes to approve such request, nor was IBM able to offer that information at oral argument. Given that this delay could have impeded Plaintiff's ability to obtain a reasonable accommodation, there is a triable issue of material fact as to whether IBM fulfilled its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation."

Addressing the final claims, Judge Davila dismissed Gupta's fraud in the inducement and wrongful termination in violation of public policy claims (with no FEHA violation to hang it on) and ruled he was not entitled to punitive damages.

To read the order in Gupta v. International Business Machines Corp., click here.