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Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act – When does the ADA Interactive Process Stop?

12.16.22 | INSIGHTS

By Jeanne L. Loftis and Alexander H. Hill

Never.  That’s the short answer.

As many know, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers are generally required to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees when requested, unless the accommodation will cause the employer an undue hardship.  An employee is considered disabled under the ADA if they have a serious health condition that affects one or more major life activity, even if the condition is only temporary.[1]

When a disabled employee provides notice to their employer that they are disabled and need reasonable accommodations to perform the essential functions of their job, the employer is required to engage in the ADA Interactive Process.  The ADA Interactive Process is, generally, a conversation between the employer and the employee regarding what reasonable accommodations the employer can grant that can plausibly assist the employee in performing the essential functions of their job.

But once a reasonable accommodation is granted – are we done?  Is there more to the ADA Interactive Process?

Yes.  The ADA Interactive Process is ongoing.[2]  For example, assume a disabled employee asks their employer to reduce their workload to part-time and only work four (4) hours per day instead of eight (8) hours per day.  Assume, as well, that the employer grants this as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  At this point, the employer has satisfied the requirements of the ADA Interactive Process and should be free of liability for any violations of the ADA.

Now assume, as further example, that the employee nonetheless ignores the accommodations and continues to work eight (8) hours a day.  Should the employer presume that the employee no longer needs the accommodations?  What now?

Look no further than the return to the ADA Interactive Process.  If the employee disregards the accommodations, the employer should re-engage in the ADA Interactive Process and document discussions with the employee as to why the employee is not utilizing the accommodations.  If the employee persists that the accommodations are not needed, the employer should document requests to the employee to provide support from the employee’s medical provider to confirm the accommodations are no longer necessary.  The documented conversations should continue to explore whether different accommodations are necessary and feasible for both the employee and the employer.

In summary, if an employee asks for reasonable accommodations under the ADA, and if those accommodations are granted by the employer, but the employee later ignores or otherwise does not utilize the accommodations, the employer should re-engage in the ADA Interactive Process to satisfy its ongoing duty of ensuring the employee either (a) no longer needs the accommodations or (b) does not require any different accommodations instead.  Finally, the employer should document these interactions, including all requests to the employee to provide supporting papers if the accommodations are no longer needed.  This should, in most instances, suffice to avoid liability to the employer under the ADA.

[1] See, Shields v. Credit One Bank, N.A., 32 F.4th 1218 (9th Cir. 2022) (holding that to establish impairment for disability purposes under the ADA, the employee need not show long-term effects of the impairment.)

[2] See, Humphrey v. Mem’l Hosps. Ass’n, 239 F.3d 1128 (9th Cir. 2001) (holding that the ADA Interactive Process “‘ is a “continuing” duty that is “not exhausted by one effort.’”) (quoting McAlindin v. Cnty. of San Diego, 192 F.3d 1226, 1237 (9th Cir. 1999) opinion amended on denial of reh’g, 201 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2000)).

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