NEW CASE: Court Reminds Employers That Reasonable Accommodation ≠ Employee’s Demand Where There Are Other Reasonable Alternatives

In a recent case (Sessoms v. Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, employers are not required to provide the accommodation requested by the employee.  Instead, after engaging in the interactive process, employers may choose among reasonable accommodations as long as the chosen accommodation is effective.

In this case, an employee had been out on a medical leave of absence relating to her disability.  Prior to returning to work, the employee engaged in the interactive process with her employer (the university) and requested that she be provided a part-time schedule and that she be transferred to a different supervisor in a “lower-stress department/office” as a reasonable accommodation for her disability.

The university agreed to provide the employee with a part-time schedule, but the university did not grant the employee’s request to change supervisors.  The university offered the employee several different accommodations (all of which involved reporting to her current supervisor), but the employee refused to accept any accommodation that involved her reporting to her current supervisor.  Ultimately, after making several attempts to get the employee to accept the offered accommodation, the employee was terminated.  The employee later sued the university for disability discrimination.

The Court found that the university did not violate the ADA by terminating the employee after it had determined that the interactive process failed.  Important to this determination was the fact that the university had made a good faith effort to accommodate this employee and had offered several different accommodations to the employee.

With respect to the employee’s request for a transfer, the Court held

Where an employee requests an accommodation in the form of a transfer, she must make a showing that this accommodation is possible, i.e., the existence of an equivalent-level, vacant position for which the employee could qualify. A reasonable accommodation does not entitle an employee to a supervisor ideally suited to their needs.

Here, the employee did not show that there was any available vacant position for which she was qualified that would warrant a transfer.  Since an employer is not required to create a new position as a reasonable accommodation, the employer had no obligation to transfer the employee.

While this case was a victory for the employer, it does not reduce an employer’s obligations under the ADA.  Employers are still required to engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee and to provide a reasonable accommodation.  This case just reminds employers that the ADA does not limit an employer to providing only an accommodation requested by an employee, or a more costly or burdensome accommodation, if there are other effective reasonable accommodations.   However, if providing an employee’s preferred accommodation does not create a burden or additional expense, that option should be seriously considered.

This case also highlights the importance of documenting the interactive process.  A significant factor in the university’s victory was the fact that the university had documented all of the good-faith efforts made in attempting to accommodate this employee.  The final take-home, whenever engaging in the interactive process with the employee, always make sure to have a well-documented interactive process.