Request for courteous communications wasn’t ADA request, 4th Cir. says

Dive Brief:

  • The Town of Abingdon, Virginia, did not have to engage in an interactive process with its former manager to accommodate his mental health issues because the letter he submitted wasn’t a valid accommodation request under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in Kelly v. Town of Abingdon, Virginia.
  • Per the Jan. 2 ruling, the town manager suffers from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. He alleged that due to political infighting, he was subjected to continuous harassment — including the mayor’s threats to fire him if he didn’t “get on board” with her goals — all of which caused him insomnia, disorientation, panic attacks at work and blood pressure spikes. On his behalf, a law firm sent the town a letter entitled “Accommodation Requests,” asking for more courteous communications, compliance with the town’s ethics code and to stop the “incessant threats of termination,” according to the record. When town officials refused to discuss the letter, the manager resigned and sued the town for violating the ADA by failing to accommodate his disabilities, discriminatory discharge and retaliation.
  • A federal district court found the letter wasn’t a valid accommodation request and ultimately granted judgment to the town on all the claims. The 4th Circuit upheld the rulings. To “kickstart the interactive process,” an employee must put the employer on notice they want assistance for their disability, the panel explained. In other words, the employee must provide “a logical bridge connecting the … disability to the workplace changes he requests,” it said. “That logical bridge is absent here,” the 4th Circuit held: The letter didn’t mention the town manager’s anxiety, depression or high blood pressure and didn’t explain how the proposed changes might alleviate these disabilities.

Dive Insight:

In recent ADA settlements, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has honed in on making sure managers and HR staff know how to properly respond to an accommodation request. This includes knowing how to assess the request and their role in the interactive process.

For managers to properly respond, it helps to understand the purpose of reasonable accommodation. That’s why the EEOC and courts repeatedly explain that a reasonable accommodation is “a change in the way things are normally done” that allows an employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of their job.

The 4th Circuit offered these tips as well: The employee only has to communicate their disability and a desire for an accommodation; the employee does not have to specify the precise limitation resulting from the disability, the court said. If the request is ambiguous about those details, the employer should seek clarification, the 4th Circuit noted. That’s where the interactive process comes in. The employer and the employee “interact” to ascertain the extent of the disability and the range of accommodations that might address it, the court explained.

The problem with the letter here was that its content made no connection to the town manager’s disabilities, the panel said. There was no dispute he made the town aware of them. But the letter’s stated theme was only “to foster a well-running office on the principles of mutual respect, clear communication, and … well-defined roles,” the court noted. Most of its suggestions — such as adherence to the ethics code and respect for defined roles — had no perceptible relation to the town manager’s disabilities, the 4th Circuit pointed out.

Because of this omission, “a reasonable employer could well read this letter only as a list of grievances and suggestions issued in response to workplace politics and personality conflicts,” the court said.

Personality conflicts and challenging assignments “can all exacerbate anxiety symptoms,” the panel noted. But employees frequently request changes to address these issues for reasons other than their disabilities, such as for a more comfortable work environment, it said.

Under the town manager’s argument, “an employee with anxiety would be entitled to the full protection of the ADA anytime his employer could anticipate that such changes might ameliorate his symptoms.” Such a result would be untenable, the court concluded.