On 1/23/17, a federal district court indicated that an employee’ requests to use a company rental car and skycap services at the airport while travelling for work may be a legally protected request for accommodation under the ADA.  In Blundell v. Nihon Kohden America (N.D.N.Y. 1/23/17), the employee alleged that his employer violated the ADA because it refused to allow him to use the employer’s rental car on business trips and also refused to reimburse him for using skycap services at the airport as a reasonable accommodation for difficulties with movement that he had as a result of nerve damage caused by severe fractures in his legs and feet.  The employee alleged that his employer had initially reimbursed him for skycap services but subsequently stopped reimbursing him. 

Informal complaints sufficient to support retaliation claim. The court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the employee’s failure to accommodate and  retaliation claims with regard to these accommodation requests. As to the retaliation claim, the court noted that the employee had made “informal complaints” about comments made by a number of his co-workers (such as calling him “gimpy”). The court concluded that “informal complaints may constitute protected activity so long as the complaints reasonably inform the employer that the plaintiff was complaining of prohibited conduct.” 

Stopping an accommodation may be retaliation. The court also concluded that employer’s decision to stop reimbursing the employee for his use of skycap services constituted “adverse action” for purposes of his retaliation claim. The court reasoned that “the withdrawal of a disability-related accommodation previously provided by the employer may consistent an adverse employment action.” 

Single attempt to prevent employee from using an approved reasonable accommodation not an adverse action. The employee had also requested permission to sit at a desk while he was teaching classes as an accommodation. The employer had approved this request but a manager subsequently attempted to discourage him from doing so. The employee alleged that the manager’s conduct supported an ADA retaliation claim. The court disagreed, stating that a single attempt to discourage an employee from taking advantage of a reasonable accommodation did not constitute an adverse employment action because it would not, in the court’s opinion, dissuade “a reasonable worker” from making or supporting a charge of discrimination. 

Lessons for employers? The case contains good and bad news for employers. The court’s conclusion that “a single attempt” to deny a reasonable accommodation is insufficient to constitute an adverse action for purposes of retaliation is encouraging. However, employers need to understand that reasonable accommodations come in all shapes and sizes. Here, the court seemed to accept (and the employer did not argue to the contrary) that a request to sit while teaching and to use a company rental car and skycap services while traveling for work were all reasonable accommodations.   

The court also reminds employers that “informal complaints” by employees about discriminatory activity may constitute sufficient protected activity to trigger liability under the ADA (or other discrimination laws). One can only assume that the repeated, alleged name-calling by a multitude of coworkers influenced the court here, and would influence a jury.  Employers should immediately address and stop these types of comments to help avoid liability.