by Meghan Siket and Joseph Cooper

The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals (whose rulings apply to all Rhode Island employers) recently affirmed summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) in favor of an employer on a claim that it failed to accommodate an employee’s disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Critical to the court’s finding was that the employer had acted reasonably in making repeated requests for more detailed information about the employee’s disability and what type of accommodations she required. By contrast, the employee did little more than express a desire for an accommodation and failed to make reasonable efforts to help the employer determine what specific accommodations were necessary. Thus, the court found that she had caused the breakdown in communication, and the employer couldn’t be held liable for failing to accommodate her.

Injury and leave of absence

On January 25, 2010, Gloria Ortiz-Martínez was hired as a social worker at Fresenius, a healthcare services provider that administers dialysis treatment to patients with kidney disease. Her duties involved regularly writing and documenting her work and completing a monthly report for each patient under her care. During the course of her employment, she suffered a hand injury while completing written patient notes.

Ortiz-Martínez saw a doctor regarding her work-related injury on July 30, 2012, and was placed on rest until August 9, 2012. She went back for several follow-up appointments over the course of the next year, and each time, she was placed on additional rest and not permitted to return to work.

Need more info to properly accommodate

When Ortiz-Martínez finally returned to work on July 18, 2013, she provided her supervisor with a form summarizing her diagnoses, which included a sprained left shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand, as well as bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. However, the form didn’t detail any specific accommodations she needed to allow her to complete daily tasks while recovering from her injury. Accordingly, her supervisor informed her that she couldn’t be reinstated without more information regarding the specific accommodations she was requesting.

When Ortiz-Martínez returned to the doctor’s office to obtain the additional information requested by her supervisor, she was provided with a letter that simply stated that her injuries “produce constant pain [and] numbness in [her] upper extremities.” According to the note, the pain caused her “difficulty in performing repetitive tasks, lifting, holding and manipulating heavy and large objects for a prolonged length of time.” It recommended that she be afforded “an occupational adjustment” and suggested that her employer provide her with “short rest periods during her workday” and “necessary adjustments” that permit her “to perform her duties without worsening her health condition while she continues to receive treatment.” After reviewing the letter, her supervisor concluded that it “didn’t tell her anything,” but that she would evaluate it and get back to her.

In the days that followed, Fresenius called Ortiz-Martínez multiple times to discuss her accommodation needs. After failing to reach her by phone, Fresenius mailed her a letter on July 26, 2013, informing her that the company had unsuccessfully attempted to contact her via phone and requesting that she contact Fresenius within the next five days to discuss how the company could best accommodate her injury.

Despite Fresenius’ attempts to contact her and despite her lack of response, Ortiz-Martínez filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on July 26, 2013.

On August 6, 2013, Ortiz-Martínez and her union representative met with her supervisor to discuss accommodations. Her supervisor reiterated that Fresenius needed more information concerning her medical restrictions to accommodate her injuries. The company wrote a letter to the doctor’s office the next day noting that it was “having difficulty evaluating what type of accommodations would be most appropriate for [Ortiz-­Martínez].” The letter requested “more specific information regarding the recommended restrictions, such as the weight or amount in pounds that [she] may lift, the frequency and duration of the rest periods, the repetitive movements she must avoid, the specific limitations for grabbing, pulling or squeezing, among others that you may point out.”

Radio silence

Fresenius never received a response from the doctor’s office. One month later, the company sent Ortiz-Martínez yet another letter specifically stating that it was “interested in continuing to have an interactive process with [her],” and making another detailed request for the additional information it needed.

Ortiz-Martínez never initiated any further communication with Fresenius concerning her accommodation requests after the August 6 meeting, and she never returned to work there. In April 2014, she filed suit in federal district court alleging that Fresenius failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the ADA.

ADA protections

One of the ADA’s fundamental mechanisms for preventing discrimination against employees with disabilities is the law’s requirement that employers make “reasonable accommodations” to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified employees, provided that the accommodations don’t impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.

An employee’s request for an accommodation creates a duty on the part of the employer to engage in an “interactive process” whereby the employer and employee engage in a meaningful dialogue, in good faith, for the purpose of discussing alternative reasonable accommodations.

In order for Ortiz-Martínez to establish her failure-to-accommodate claim, she had to prove that:

(1) She was disabled within the meaning of the ADA;

(2) She was able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation; and

(3) Her employer, despite knowing of her disability, didn’t reasonably accommodate it.

The district court granted summary judgment to Fresenius. It found that Ortiz-Martínez never established that her employer hadn’t reasonably accommodated her, instead finding that she was the one responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process.

Info-sharing part of interactive process

On appeal before the 1st Circuit, Ortiz-Martínez claimed that she hadn’t been responsible for the breakdown in communication because she “manifested her desire to be reinstated after her disability-related leave of absence,” and that Fresenius never offered her any sort of reasonable accommodation. Furthermore, she claimed that Fresenius’s requests for additional information were excessive and unrelated to her work requirements as a social worker.

The court noted at the outset that under the ADA, employees have the initial obligation of putting the employer on notice of the need for accommodation. Thus, the burden was on Ortiz-Martínez to inform Fresenius of the specific accommodations that she needed and to demonstrate how those accommodations were connected to her ability to work.

The 1st Circuit then observed that Ortiz-Martínez had repeatedly failed to participate in her employer’s genuine efforts to fashion an appropriate workplace accommodation for her. The court stated that the record was “rife with uncontested facts demonstrating that Fresenius continually attempted to engage in the interactive process in good faith, while Ortiz-Martínez refused to meaningfully engage after submitting an initial letter from her doctors on July 18, 2013, and attending a meeting on August 6, 2013.”

The mere fact that Ortiz-Martínez had expressed a desire to be reinstated didn’t alone lead to the conclusion that she meaningfully engaged in the interactive process in good faith. In other words, simply declaring her desire to return to work didn’t meet her burden to inform her employer about her physical limitations for the purpose of developing an appropriate accommodation.

Moreover, the court rejected Ortiz-Martínez’s claim that Fresenius had requested excessively specific details about her physical limitations, holding instead that its repeated requests for more specific information regarding her accommodation needs were both reasonable and important for determining the type of accommodations she required. The court reasoned that the information the company had requested was directly relevant to the accommodations she would need while performing her daily documentation of patient assessments, care planning, and counseling.

For those reasons, the court concluded that Fresenius committed no error in attempting to clarify Ortiz-Martínez’s needs so that it could properly accommodate her, and its failure to offer any type of accommodation was because of a lack of sufficient information. As a result, her appeal was denied and summary judgment for the employer affirmed.

Bottom line

This case provides an important reminder that when an employee requests an accommodation, it’s perfectly reasonable for employers to make detailed requests for information in an effort to fashion an appropriate accommodation that meets the employee’s needs. If he fails to cooperate in the good-faith attempts to identify a proper accommodation or, like in Ortiz-Martínez’s case, communicates little more than a desire to return to work, this 1st Circuit decision suggests that the employer’s failure to provide an accommodation because of lack of sufficient information can’t be the basis for liability.

To discuss this topic further, please contact Joe Cooper at 401-270-0180.