The Interactive Process: Proceed with Caution

Employee leave of absence request on desk for Americans with Disabilities Act reasonable accommodation

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), employers must “make reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities. Once an employee with a qualifying disability requests an accommodation, the employer has a duty to engage in the interactive process. The purpose of this process is to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.

In the recently decided case Blanchet v. Charter Communications, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Charter, Ms. Blanchet’s former employer. Upon developing postpartum depression following the birth of her baby, Ms. Blanchet asked Charter’s third-party leave administrator for an accommodation of additional leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Although Ms. Blanchet’s request (for leave of an indefinite duration) was not formally granted, she received certain assurances from the leave administrator upon which she relied in continuing her psychiatric course of care. To Ms. Blanchet’s surprise, her employment was later terminated.

In considering the employee’s appeal, the Court of Appeals found it significant that Charter failed to engage in the interactive process. The Court of Appeals noted that “both parties have a duty to participate in good faith” and that an employer “is not participating in good faith if it determines what accommodation it is willing to offer before ever speaking with the employee.” The Court further noted that “Charter never spoke directly with Blanchet, decided to fire her before even telling her that the accommodation was unreasonable, and led Blanchet to believe that her accommodation would be approved.” Accordingly, the Court would not allow Charter to “argue that Blanchet’s proposed accommodation was unreasonable.”

Blanchet underscores the importance of engaging in the interactive process in good faith, while simultaneously demonstrating the risk of an employer’s blind reliance on a third-party leave administrator. Note, too, that although leave of an indefinite nature may not be a reasonable accommodation, even an unreasonable request can trigger the employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process.

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