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Two Cases Show When Reasonable Accommodations Are Needed

Two adults using sign language

HR professionals may find it confusing to determine when they have to consider various accommodations for an employee with a disability, especially if the employee is on leave. Two recent legal settlements shed some light on compliance for reasonable accommodations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to job applicants and employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodation doesn’t impose an undue hardship on the business, meaning a significant cost or difficulty. Many states also have laws that require reasonable disability accommodations.

Citizens Bank Case

In November 2023, Citizens Bank agreed to pay $100,000 to a former employee of its Cranston, R.I., call center to resolve a disability discrimination lawsuit. Citizens Bank allegedly refused to accommodate the employee after he developed an anxiety disorder and went on medical leave. He requested to be reassigned to a position that did not require him to field calls from aggravated customers over the phone. The company refused to reassign the employee to a different job or discuss other possible accommodations until he returned to his job at the call center. Meanwhile, Citizens Bank had many open positions nearby, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which brought the lawsuit.

“While we strongly disagree with many of the factual and legal assertions contained in this case, we are pleased to have this matter settled amicably,” said Rory Sheehan, a spokesperson for Citizens Bank.

If an accommodation is not obvious, the ADA requires employers to participate in an interactive process in which they meet with the employee to discuss the employee’s needs and potential options for disability accommodations. If an employee requests an accommodation while they are out on leave, HR needs to decide whether to start the interactive process during the leave or after the employee returns to work.

“You don’t want to unreasonably delay their return to work, but you also don’t want to interfere with their leave,” said Anne Yuengert, an attorney with Bradley in Birmingham, Ala. “I like giving the employee the option of addressing it during the leave or waiting until they are released to return to work.”

However, “an employer cannot refuse to engage in the interactive process until an employee returns to the same job that the employee’s disability precludes him or her from performing,” EEOC New York District Office Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in a statement. “Transferring a qualified employee to a vacant position is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

Cloudbeds Case

Also in November, Cloudbeds, a San Diego-based technology platform for hotels, agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit. The company allegedly failed to provide an accommodation to a deaf applicant seeking a remote job in IT administration. Instead, it ended his candidacy on the basis that verbal communication and hearing were requirements for the job in a remote setting, the EEOC said.

This settlement “reminds employers of the importance of engaging in the interactive process with qualified individuals, who may provide insight into what reasonable accommodations they may need during the hiring process and may enable them to perform the essential functions of the positions to which they are applying,” Timothy Riera, former [CG2] acting director of the EEOC’s New York District Office, said in a statement.

As more companies rely on remote and hybrid work, “the protections of the ADA apply with equal force to in-person and remote workplaces and their hiring processes,” EEOC Regional Attorney Jeffrey Burstein said in a statement.

Cloudbeds did not respond to a request for comment.

To avoid discrimination lawsuits, employers should have HR review all accommodation requests and have a form employees can fill out, Yuengert said. “I like the employee to tell us what he or she wants to start the process. Having the employee write it down makes sure we are clear,” she said.


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