Clearing Up Confusion About The ADA's "Interactive Process" For Reasonable Accommodation Claims

I've recently received a few Des Moines disability discrimination law calls (from both employers and employees) that indicate that there's some confusion concerning the type of information that an employee is required to provide as part of requesting a reasonable work accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Employees have to cooperate with the process of requesting a reasonable disability accommodation. They can't just demand a disability accommodation and expect their employer to grant it with no further questions asked.

I commonly hear two employment discrimination questions, particularly from employees, about employers' rights when an employee requests a reasonable disability accommodation. First, does the employer have a right to inquire into the employee's requested accommodation, or does the employer just have to allow the accommodation? Second, do patient privacy and confidentiality laws prohibit the employer from seeking information about the underlying medical condition that the employee believes has caused the impairment and disability necessitating an accommodation? The answer to both questions is yes, to a certain extent.

Employees' misunderstanding of employers' rights during the reasonable accommodation process can put the employee in a bad situation and perhaps out of a job. Theoretically, if an employee can't perform the essential functions of a job because of a disability, and doesn't cooperate in the reasonable accommodation process, the employer doesn't have to grant a reasonable accommodation. It can fire the employee instead. The employer's attempt to discuss the requested accommodation with the employee, and the employee's refusal to do so, could later be a defense for the employer to any disability discrimination claims the employee brings.  

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires that employers engage in an "interactive process" with employees who have requested a disability accommodation. The interactive process serves several purposes. It helps the employer determine whether:

  • The employee has a disability within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  • Whether the requested accommodation is reasonably necessary to allow the employee to continue working notwithstanding the disability.

  • Whether the requested accommodation will be an undue hardship for the employer.

  • Whether there are alternative accommodations that would still help the employee while not placing as much of an undue hardship on the employer.

  • Whether the employee has the qualifications for and interest in a different position that may be a better accommodation for the employee.

As part of the interactive process, employers have the right to ask employees pertinent questions that will help them reach an informed decision regarding the reasonable disability accommodation request. Employers are permitted to seek information concerning an employee's requested disability accommodation, the nature of the disability underlying the employee's request, the employee's thoughts on how the disability has caused the need for an accommodation. While employees don't have to identify the exact accommodation, they do need to describe how their disability is effecting their ability to work,

Medical privacy is a frequent concern of callers to our firm who are not happy with their employers' responses to disability accommodation requests. Employees who have requested a disability accommodation must understand that they may lose their medical privacy rights by doing so. Employers often need, and are entitled to request, an employee's medical information and documentation as part of the interactive process discussed above. Employers use that medical information to determine whether the employee has a qualifying disability within the meaning of the ADA, to evaluate whether the employee requires a reasonable accommodation, and to analyze whether there may be effective accommodation options other than what the employee's requested. We hear similar concerns and questions as Des Moines Family and Medical Leave Act lawyers. The short answer is that employees who are seeking disability accommodations or medical absences will likely have to forego at least some of their medical privacy or possibly face denial of their request.

Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines employment lawyer.

Harley Erbe