As all employers should well know by now, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and many state and local counterparts may require employers to engage in an interactive process in response to a disabled employee’s request for a workplace accommodation. A recent ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates why employers have a very strong financial incentive to be proactive in adopting and rigorously enforcing their disability accommodation policies.
In Burnett v. Ocean Properties, decided on February 2, 2021, a wheelchair user employed by a hotel chain call center complained internally that the office’s entrance was not accessible to him. It had heavy doors beyond which was a downward slope that caused the plaintiff’s wheelchair to roll backwards as the door closed on him, requiring him to exert greater force as he struggled to enter. He asked that push-button automatic doors be installed. The employer did not take any meaningful steps to address the complaint with the plaintiff. Eventually he was injured as he tried to open the door. Still, the employer did not follow up on his accommodation request. The plaintiff eventually filed an administrative charge with the Maine Human Rights Commission. The employer met with the plaintiff at that time, but claimed lack of familiarity with ADA compliance requirements and took no action to address the complaint. The plaintiff eventually resigned and filed suit in federal court when the administrative process was completed.