By Robb McDonald and Marti Cardi, Vice President Product Compliance
July 25, 2019
“This is a case about a civil servant’s dissatisfaction with the government’s sluggishness in accommodating her disability. While delay is no doubt frustrating, it is not, in this case, unlawful.”
So starts the opinion in Weatherspoon v. Price, a case decided recently by the federal court in the District of Columbia.
Monique Weatherspoon was (and, as far as we know, still is!) employed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She suffers from uveitis, a sensitivity to light which makes it difficult for her to travel to her office and to read her computer screen. Over time the Department granted a multitude of accommodations. Try these on for size:
- Starting in 2011 and for the next few years, the Department permitted Weatherspoon to work from home
1-2 days per week and also to work from home as needed due to her condition.
- In 2015, Weatherspoon’s condition deteriorated and she requested a laptop with an oversize screen. Instead,
the Department offered to provide a docking station and large monitor for home set up.
- Weatherspoon took medical leave in November and December 2015.
- In early 2016, the Department advised Weatherspoon that the docking station and monitor were available
for pickup. Weatherspoon cancelled several appointments with IT to test and pick up the equipment.
Once she picked up the equipment, Weatherspoon indicated that she had trouble using it.
- The Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) suggested that a software
program, ZoomText, might be helpful and provided Weatherspoon with a trial version. Weatherspoon
advised the Department that the software was not helping.
- In May 2016, Weatherspoon requested 100% telework as an accommodation. The Department denied
the request, but did permit telework for 2 days per week, and episodic telework as necessitated by her
condition. The Department never denied a request by Weatherspoon for episodic telecommuting.
- After further in-person assessment, the CAP provided Weatherspoon different ZoomText software and
a larger laptop. Weatherspoon picked up the equipment in December 2016 when she went to the office
for the holiday party.
Apparently, this equipment and the telecommuting arrangement were successful in enabling Weatherspoon to perform her job. Nonetheless, these efforts were not satisfactory to Weatherspoon. She sued the Department for “failing to reasonably and effectively accommodate” her disability.
|Side note. OK, a little detail here. Weatherspoon sued the Department under the federal Rehabilitation Act, not the ADA. The Rehab Act is substantially similar to the ADA but applies to federal employers and employees, while the ADA applies to pretty much all other employers and employees. The principles, the employer’s obligations, and the employee’s rights are the same. So in general, a lesson learned in a Rehab Act case also applies to employers covered by the ADA.|
The Tortoise, Not the Hare
Weatherspoon alleged that lengthy delays (she claimed 17 months) in providing accommodations were tantamount to a denial of her request. The court acknowledged that in some cases, a long-delayed accommodation could be considered unreasonable and hence a violation of the ADA/Rehab Act but here, no single accommodation request took more than 3-4 months to resolve – and always ended with the Department providing Weatherspoon with an accommodation. Moreover, many factors contributing to the delays were beyond the control of the Department. For example, Weatherspoon took an extended period of medical leave during the request period, cancelled multiple meetings, and delayed in picking up the offered equipment. The court also noted that it can take weeks or months to analyze and procure proper technology such as specialized software and computer equipment. And, when dealing with a government entity, movement is “more tortoise-like than hare-like . . . But that’s just business as usual, not evidence of discrimination.”
The Interactive Process – Keep it Going!
As we know, it is important to engage in the interactive process when evaluating an accommodation request, and this requires “flexible give-and-take” between the employer and employee. In this case, Weatherspoon’s supervisor was in regular communication and dialogue with her. There was also a great deal of communication among Weatherspoon, her supervisor, and 5 additional persons or entities within the Department to assess and meet her needs. In light of this and the number of attempted and suggested accommodations, the court held that the Department participated in the interactive process in good faith and did not violate the Rehab Act due to the delays in reaching final accommodations.
Pings for Employers
- Engage in the interactive process with regular communication and dialogue. Don’t be responsible for
a breakdown in the process. According to the Court, “To determine whether the employer held up its end
of the bargain, courts look to factors such as whether the employer obstructs or delays the interactive process
or fails to communicate, by way of initiation or response.” In this case, the Department kept the process
going to conclusion with some effective accommodations.
- So don’t be responsible for unreasonable delays. Weatherspoon did indeed experience delays in obtaining
effective accommodations. One wonders whether a private employer would have received the leniency this
court showed to the Department as a government entity! You don’t want to be the test case!
- Offer alternative accommodations in appropriate circumstances. You do not have to approve an employee’s
preferred accommodation when there is another effective accommodation that better suits your business needs.
In this case the Department offered Weatherspoon different specialized equipment than what she requested and
also pushed back on her request for full-time telecommuting by offering 2 days per week plus other days as
needed. Just be sure that the alternative offered is effective to enable the employee to perform her essential
- If you can’t find a reasonable, effective accommodation, a robust interactive process will still serve you well.
If you engage in dialog with the employee and consider various options, but none enable the employee to
perform her essential functions without undue hardship, you have fulfilled your ADA obligations. (But don’t
forget your duty to consider reassignment, the accommodation of last resort! See our prior blog posts on
reassignment here and here.)
- Document the interactions meticulously. Especially in an extended situation like this one, it would be difficult
after the fact to recreate accurately all the interactions that support your position.
MATRIX CAN HELP! Through our ADA Advantage, Matrix offers administration and management of employee requests for accommodations. We manage it all, from intake and medical documentation through the final accommodation decision and follow-up. We manage and document the interactive process so you don’t have to worry about those Pings above. You retain control over the final decision but we help you get there effectively and in compliance with the ADA. If you want to learn more about our ADA services, contact your Matrix/Reliance Standard account manager or send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.