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June 26, 2014

Decision by New York's Highest Court Highlights the Importance of Engaging in an Interactive Process Regarding Reasonable Accommodations with Disabled Employees

The New York Court of Appeals in Jacobsen v. New York City Health & Hosps. Corp., 2014 NY Slip. Op. 2098 (N.Y. 2014), recently issued a decision holding that an employer's failure to engage in a good-faith interactive process regarding the reasonableness of an employee's requested accommodation generally precludes the employer from obtaining summary judgment on disability discrimination claims under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws.

The New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws forbid employment discrimination on the basis of an employee's disability, with the New York City Human Rights Law providing even greater protections against disability-based discrimination than the State Human Rights Law.

In Jacobsen, the plaintiff was employed as an Assistant Health Facilities Planner with the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation ("HHC") – a position requiring him to frequently work at construction sites. Following a medical leave of absence for an occupational lung disease, the plaintiff's doctor cleared him to return to work but ordered that he not be further exposed to any type of environmental dust or be present at any construction site. Upon his return to work and because of his condition, the plaintiff requested to be transferred to a position in HHC's central office, which he had previously held with HHC before becoming the Assistant Health Facilities Planner. He also requested that he be provided a respirator to wear to minimize dust exposure when required to visit construction sites. HHC denied the transfer request and placed him on involuntary medical leave for six months, reasoning that his position required him to be present at construction sites. HHC terminated plaintiff's position at the end of the leave.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that there was no reasonable accommodation that HHC could have provided to the plaintiff, because his own medical evidence led to the conclusion that the plaintiff could not perform the duties of Assistant Health Facilities Planner. The Appellate Division upheld the trial court's determination, holding that HHC had established that the plaintiff could not, even with a reasonable accommodation, perform the essential functions of his job.

Reversing the decisions of the lower courts, the New York Court of Appeals initially observed that the State Human Rights Law requires that, "where an employee seeks a specific accommodation for his or her disability, the employer must give individualized consideration to that request and may not arbitrarily reject the employee's proposal without further inquiry." The Court further noted that an employee's request for a reasonable accommodation is relevant to the determination as to whether a reasonable accommodation can be made, and that "an employee's suggestion of a specific accommodation must prompt the employer to consider whether the burden thus imposed upon the employer's business would be reasonable." The Court continued, "[i]n this way, the employer's response to the employee's request and any ensuing dialogue about the impact of the proposed accommodation on the employer's business inform the determination of whether a reasonable accommodation exists." Accordingly, the Court held:

In light of the importance of the employer's consideration of the employee's proposed accommodation, the employer cannot normally obtain summary judgment on a State [Human Rights Law] claim unless the record demonstrates that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether the employer duly considered the requested accommodation. And, the employer cannot present such a record if the employer has not engaged in interactions with the employee revealing at least some deliberation upon the viability of the employee's request. Consequently, to prevail on a summary judgment motion with respect to a State [Human Rights Law] claim, the employer must show that it "engage[d] in a good faith interactive process that assesse[d] the needs of the disabled individual and the reasonableness of the accommodation requested"¦." And, because the City [Human Rights Law] provides broader protections against disability discrimination than the State [Human Rights Law], the City [Human Rights Law] unquestionably forecloses summary judgment where the employer has not engaged in a good faith interactive process regarding a specifically requested accommodation.

The Jacobsen decision highlights the critical importance of engaging in a good-faith open dialogue with an employee who requests an accommodation for a disability. When presented with an accommodation request, employers should not summarily reject the request. Rather, employers should be sure to fully consider the feasibility of the employee's request and communicate with the employee regarding each accommodation request.

If you have any questions about complying with federal, state or local anti-discrimination laws, please contact the Hiscock & Barclay lawyer with whom you normally work or any attorney in our Labor & Employment Practice Area.


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