On August 20, 2013, the Connecticut Appellate Court reversed a trial court’s decision that the East Haven Board of Education had violated the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) when it terminated a teacher’s employment and failed to provide her with the specific accommodation that she had requested. In the case, Festa v. Board of Education , the court found that the Board of Education did not violate CFEPA because the teacher had caused the breakdown of the interactive process with the Board of Education.
As with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a Connecticut-based employee who requests an accommodation for a disability under the CFEPA must engage in an interactive process with her employer. In Festa, the plaintiff requested a transfer from teaching third grade to teaching kindergarten because of her unspecified “cognitive difficulties.” The Board of Education denied the request because it had no basis to conclude that the plaintiff could be able to teach kindergarten but not third grade, and it invited the plaintiff to discuss any other accommodations that might aid her. In response, the plaintiff demanded that the Board transfer her to a kindergarten position. The Board again declined to do so, but again invited the plaintiff to discuss any other accommodations. The plaintiff then failed to report to work.
The court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim because it found that she had caused the breakdown in the interactive process. The court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to provide information that only she could provide, such as information from her physician explaining how she could be able to teach kindergarten but not third grade, or information about other accommodations that might have been able to aid her. The court looked to a 1996 decision by the Seventh Circuit, Beck v. University of Wisconsin Board of Regents:
"Neither the ADA nor the regulations assign responsibility for when the interactive process fails. No hard and fast rule will suffice, because neither party should be able to cause a breakdown in the process for the purpose of either avoiding or inflicting liability. Rather, courts should look for signs of failure to participate in good faith or failure by one of the parties to make reasonable efforts to help the other party determine what specific accommodations are necessary. A party that obstructs or delays the interactive process is not acting in good faith. A party that fails to communicate, by way of initiation or response, may also be acting in bad faith. In essence, courts should attempt to isolate the cause of the breakdown and then assign responsibility."(Emphasis added.)
Connecticut employers should continue to stay apprised of what is required under the ADA and CFEPA with respect to accommodating their employees’ disabilities. In addition, employers should take note that the interactive process is a two-way street, and should always keep the lines of communication open with employees who request disability-related accommodations.