ADA Interactive Process Is a Means, Not an End

By Roger S. Achille March 16, 2021
a man unable to sleep awake in bed in the middle of the night

​Notwithstanding an employer's alleged lack of robust discussion about accommodation, a court rejected an employee's Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim when the employer provided a reasonable accommodation.

The plaintiff, a social worker for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), had depression, making it difficult to sleep at night and consequently difficult to concentrate and recall information. Social workers were assigned to multiple schools with different start times.

In October 2014, the plaintiff requested that CPS allow him a consistent start time, 7:45 a.m., and a consistent end time, 2:45 p.m., to his workday. Citing insufficient medical information, CPS denied his request but arranged for the plaintiff to arrive at one of his assigned schools at 7:45 a.m.

One month later, the plaintiff submitted a second request for a consistent 7:45 a.m. start time, as well as requests for the minimum student caseload, an assignment to a single school and the removal of Prescott Elementary School from his responsibilities.

With no openings at schools with 7:45 a.m. start times, CPS stated that it would attempt to place him at a school with a 7:45 a.m. start time the following year. CPS found no justification for a reduced case load and denied his requests to be assigned to only one school other than Prescott Elementary School, because that would have resulted in a de facto part‐time position. However, for the coming school year, CPS removed Prescott Elementary School from the plaintiff's responsibility and assigned him to two schools with 7:45 a.m. start times.

In September 2015, the plaintiff submitted a third request for accommodation asking that each of his assigned schools provide him with a private office and dedicated equipment, specifically a telephone, a laser printer, a fax machine, a large high‐resolution monitor, a shredder, a scanner, a proper desk and swivel chair, and large high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters. He also requested that CPS exempt him from evaluations and grant him a life‐long waiver of its residency rule. CPS supplied the plaintiff with HEPA filters, computer monitors and access to a private space to meet with students but denied his other requests.

The plaintiff alleged discrimination on the basis of his disability, claiming that his requests for accommodation had "been either ignored, denied, or addressed with unreasonable, temporary accommodations." To prevail on a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that he was a qualified individual with a disability, the employer was aware of his disability and the employer failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. Relevant to the third element is the employer and the employee's respective cooperation in an interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation.

With respect to the plaintiff's first accommodation request, the court found it difficult to see how allowing him to arrive early at one of his assigned schools so that he would have a consistent morning routine did not satisfy the plaintiff's needs. Moreover, the plaintiff did not contend that there were positions open at schools with 7:45 a.m. start times or suggest another way CPS could have reasonably accommodated his request.

In the second accommodation request, the plaintiff pointed specifically to his request that he be assigned to a single school, preferably Lawndale Elementary, and asserted that CPS did not address whether another school might have been available. However, the 7th Circuit explained that CPS did consider that possibility and addressed it in the letter denying the requested accommodation.

Finally, the plaintiff faulted CPS for failing to engage in a "robust interactive process" with respect to his third request. However, the plaintiff did not establish to the court how the requests were reasonable or how they would have helped him accomplish the essential functions of his job. Despite his claim that he could easily explain the necessity for these specific requests, the court commented that the plaintiff did not set forth a connection between, for instance, his own dedicated shredder and his disability.

"Because the interactive process is not an end in itself," the 7th Circuit declared, "an employer cannot be liable solely for refusing to take part in it nor will it give rise to a claim against an employer who reasonably accommodated the employee."

Williams v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 7th Circuit, No. 19‐3152 (Dec. 8, 2020), petition for rehearing denied (Jan. 7, 2021).

Professional Pointer: The interactive process is a valuable opportunity for the employer and employee to communicate and discuss accommodations that may assist the employee in performing essential job functions.

Roger S. Achille is an attorney and a professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.



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