Bill Egan writes:

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a covered employer must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate is initiated by a request for an accommodation from a disabled employee or someone speaking on the employee’s behalf.

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Most courts have held that a request for accommodation from an employee is a “predicate requirement” to the interactive process for determining whether a reasonable accommodation can be made and what that accommodation will look like. The ADA does not require an employer to speculate about the accommodation needs of employees and applicants.

That has now changed, at least in the Eighth Circuit.  In Kowitz v.Trinity Health, a hospital respiratory therapist returned to work under a lifting restriction after undergoing spine surgery and exhausting her 12-week FMLA leave.  Although the hospital initially accommodated this restriction, it terminated the therapist’s employment after she advised that her doctor restricted her for four months from performing the physical demonstration portion of the “basic life support” recertification process, a departmental requirement.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the hospital concluding that Kowitz was not qualified to perform the essential functions of her job because she was not certified to provide basic life support.  The court further held that because Kowitz never requested a transfer to another position, the hospital was under no obligation to reassign her to a position that did not require the basic life support certification.

The Eighth Circuit reversed, over a strongly worded dissent, holding that an express request for assistance is not needed to trigger an employer’s duty to discuss the reasonable accommodation option with an employee.  The court held, “Though Kowitz did not ask for a reasonable accommodation of her condition in so many words, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Kowitz, her notification to her supervisor that she would not be able to obtain the required certification until she had completed physical therapy implied that an accommodation would be required until then.”

The lesson from Kowitz is if the facts known to the employer about an employee’s disability are sufficient to make the employer aware of the possible need for a reasonable accommodation, the employer is legally obligated to engage in the interactive process to determine if indeed the employee needs such an accommodation and whether an accommodation can be made without posing an undue hardship on the employer.

Bill Egan is a partner in the Labor & Employment Department, resident in Fox’s Minneapolis office.