By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ
There are several cases outlining the general obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding accommodation of service animals in various settings, including a recent jury award from a federal court in Arkansas in favor of an employee who sought to have his service dog accompany him at work.
These obligations regarding employee requests for accommodation of service animals under Title I of the ADA were recently discussed in an opinion issued by Chief U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., in the case of Wayne Schroeder v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, No. 3:20-cv-00893 (U.S. D.C. M.D. Tenn. October 22, 2021).
The Schroeder case involves claims that an employer failed to adequately engage in the interactive process and provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s request to bring his service dog to work. In the opinion, the Court denied motions for summary judgment filed by both the employee and the employer.
Mr. Schroeder is employed as a senior specialist RAN engineer, traveling throughout the U.S. detecting electronic interference with AT&T’s cell signal frequencies. He suffers from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder related to his prior military service and experiences from working as an Emergency Medical Technician. In 2019, he requested a variety of accommodations from AT&T to allow his service dog, Dakota, to accompany him while working. These requested accommodations included a different company vehicle to provide space for Dakota, as well as modifications to the vehicle including “removal of the backseat, installation of a barrier to contain equipment, installation of a barrier to protect Dakota, installation of LED lighting, installation of a fan in Dakota’s door to help cool him, window tinting and remote start to help cool or heat the vehicle, and placards to notify others that a service animal was in the truck.” Mr. Schroeder also requested “more overnight stays when he was on the road to cut down on travel stress on Dakota.”
An HR specialist at AT&T discussed the accommodation requests with Mr. Schroeder on the phone and via email and reviewed a PowerPoint presentation that Mr. Schroeder prepared. However, AT&T did not conduct a cost-analysis of the requested accommodations, nor did AT&T propose any alternative accommodations prior to rejecting Mr. Schroeder’s accommodation requests. The ADA lawsuit followed, with both parties filing motions for summary judgment.
In denying both parties’ motions, the District Court Judge noted that the ADA prohibits discrimination in employment “on the basis of disability,” and that discrimination includes “not making reasonable accommodations” for disabled individuals, unless the accommodations “would impose an undue hardship.” 42 U.S.C. §12112. Further the Court recognized that the ADA requires employers to engage in an “interactive process” with employees who have a disability and to make reasonable accommodations. The interactive process requires an employer to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations.
AT&T argued that Mr. Schroeder’s requests were per se unreasonable, because he could perform his job duties without his service dog. However, the Court explained that accommodation requests are not automatically unreasonable merely because the employee is physically capable of performing his job absent a requested accommodation. The duty of reasonable accommodation requires an employer to do what is necessary to enable the disabled employee to work in reasonable comfort, and to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as similarly situated employees without disabilities.
AT&T also asserted that the specific accommodations requested were unsafe or illegal, and thus unreasonable. However, the Court noted that AT&T failed to work with Mr. Schroeder to narrow down his proposed accommodations to find ones that were practical. The Court acknowledged that a reasonable jury could find that AT&T failed to satisfy its obligation to actively participate with its employee in the “exploration of possible accommodations” under the ADA.
AT&T’s argument that Mr. Schroeder’s requests for accommodation were per se unreasonable and imposed an undue hardship were also rejected. First, AT&T failed to perform a cost analysis of the requested accommodations. Second, AT&T failed to present any evidence on its “overall financial resources” or the “number of its employees,” which are relevant to the determination of whether Mr. Schroeder’s requests were reasonable or posed an undue hardship.
The Court also denied Mr. Schroeder’s request for summary judgment based on his assertion that AT&T failed to sufficiently engage in the interactive process with him. The Court noted that AT&T certainly communicated with Mr. Schroeder regarding his proposed accommodations (10 email exchanges and three phone calls). There was no evidence that AT&T interacted in bad faith. Nor was AT&T required to propose an alternative accommodation to demonstrate good faith participation in the interactive process. The Court stated a reasonable jury could find that AT&T adequately participated in the interactive process.
Lessons to be learned from this decision include a reminder of the importance of the interactive process and in articulating objective reasons for a determination of unreasonableness. Mr. Schroeder’s primary complaint revolved around the failure of AT&T to propose any alternative accommodations prior to a complete rejection of his requests. Had AT&T done so, or more fully communicated their concerns with his requested accommodations, this expensive litigation might have been avoided.
The ADA’s interactive process requires both the employer and the employee to participate in good faith. This process should include ample communication, including face-to-face meetings whenever possible, as well as other forms of direct communication. While written communications (emails, letters, etc.) are helpful to document discussions, these types of communications should never replace direct communications between the employer and employee.
Employers should respond promptly to an employee’s request for accommodation, initiating and engaging in the interactive process with the employee. One of the first goals after receiving the request for accommodation is to identify and determine the precise limitations resulting from the employee’s disability. In other words, how does the employee’s disability impact his or her ability to perform the job? Then, the employer must assess potential accommodations which would enable the employee to perform the job while enjoying the same benefits and privileges as similarly situated employees without disabilities. These potential accommodation options should be fully discussed with the employee prior to reaching a decision.
Before an employee’s requested accommodation is rejected, an employer should formulate and communicate to the employee all specific reasons why the employee’s request is unreasonable or imposes an undue hardship. This may include a cost analysis when necessary. However, cost is certainly not the only factor. Other factors include the nature of the requested accommodation; the overall financial resources of the business; the number of persons employed by the business; the effect on expenses and resources of the business; and the impact of the accommodation on the business. If cost is an issue, then the employer should consider whether funding is available from an outside source or tax credits are available to offset the cost of the accommodation.
Employers should consider suggesting alternative accommodation proposals if the employee’s requested accommodation is determined unreasonable. This will certainly demonstrate an employer’s good faith in the process and will foster continuing discussions between employer and employee about potential ways to accommodate the employee’s disability.