Worker’s Evidence Falls Short in Disability Accommodation Lawsuit

By Margaret M. Clark August 19, 2020
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Warehouse Workers

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision overturning a jury verdict that an employer unlawfully failed to accommodate a longtime employee with a disability.

This case concerns the employer's obligations under the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992, which is analyzed under the same rubric as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The dispute arose after the employer terminated an employee who had been deaf since birth. She sued in Florida state court, and the employer removed the case to federal court.

The trial ended with a jury verdict for the employer on the employee's wrongful termination claim but against the company on her failure-to-accommodate claim. The trial court then overturned the jury verdict, ruling that no reasonable jury could find that the employer had not provided the employee with a reasonable accommodation.

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The 11th Circuit agreed that there was insufficient evidence to support the failure-to-accommodate claim and affirmed the judgment as a matter of law in favor of the employer.

The employee—who was a skilled lip reader and fluent speaker—had worked successfully and congenially for the employer since 1989 with a record of only two disciplinary infractions. But things changed in mid-2012 with the arrival of a new general manager, whom she alleged mumbled, covered his mouth when he spoke and ridiculed her for talking with her hands. Her distress over that situation caused her to lodge a complaint that kicked off 15 months of meetings, attempted accommodations and increasingly rancorous working relationships.

In response to the employee's complaint, the employer installed video remote-interpreting equipment devices in two convenient locations, offered deaf-culture training for warehouse managers in the employee's immediate chain of command and provided onsite interpreters in certain situations, including group meetings.

In the fall of 2013, yet another new manager began repeatedly to accuse the employee of being loud, angry and insubordinate, and issued her numerous counseling notices. The employer twice suspended her for insubordination and unbecoming conduct, and in late October 2013 fired her for excessive policy violations.

An appeals court reviews—without deference—a trial court's grant of a motion for judgment as a matter of law. A court should enter a judgment as a matter of law only when there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party.

In this case, the only open issue was whether the employer had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, or to engage in the requisite interactive process in order to identify one. An employer is not required to accommodate an employee in any manner the employee desires or to provide the employee's preferred accommodation.

Despite a vigorous dissent, the 11th Circuit declined to hold that the employer failed to reasonably accommodate a deaf employee when:

  • It provided on-demand access to live sign-language interpreters.
  • It arranged a thorough training session on deaf culture.
  • Its general manager resolved to improve his relationship with the employee by attending one-on-one training sessions.

Because the employee failed to elicit any specific instance in which she needed an accommodation and was denied one, it was appropriate for the trial court to overturn the jury verdict.

D'Onofrio v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 11th Cir., No. 19-10663 (July 6, 2020).

Professional Pointer: Even though the employer prevailed in the legal action, the company lost an employee who had performed successfully for many years, and the parties spent time and money in yearslong litigation. Dialogue involving accommodations for employees with disabilities should focus on solutions that meet the employee's actual needs as opposed to solutions that the employer deems appropriate—even though the employer is not legally required to accede to the employee's preference.

Margaret M. Clark, J.D., SHRM-SCP, is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

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