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Recent Federal Appellate Decisions Acknowledge Limits on Employer’s Obligation to Engage in ADA Interactive Process

Employers are generally aware of the obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to engage in an “interactive process” with employees who require accommodations in order to perform their duties, but identifying the point at which this obligation is met is far from an exact science.  In two recent decisions, the Second and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal clarified that an employer must only offer a reasonable accommodation that does not unduly burden business operations, and need not continue to provide more generous accommodations or investigate alternative accommodations that an employee has not proposed.

Second Circuit

In Noll v. IBM (2d Cir. May 21, 2015), a deaf software engineer who worked for IBM for many years had received several accommodations that enabled him to successfully perform his job. Although IBM provided the employee with on-site and remote interpreters and real-time transcription and video relay services, he alleged the company’s refusal to provide captions for all intranet videos and transcripts for all audio files immediately upon posting them violated the ADA.

The Second Circuit disagreed and held that an employer need only provide an “effective accommodation,” not “a perfect accommodation or the very accommodation most strongly preferred by the employee.”  Moreover, the court determined that “the ADA imposes no liability for an employer’s failure to explore alternative accommodations when the accommodations [already] provided to the employee were plainly reasonable.” As the court explained, “the interactive process is not required when the end it is designed to serve—reasonable accommodation—has already been achieved.”

Eleventh Circuit

In Spears v. Creel (11th Cir. April 15, 2015), a woman who was undergoing cancer treatment accepted a position as a detention deputy in the corrections department of a jail after her position in the jail’s medical department was eliminated. When the employee’s medical condition prevented her from performing the essential functions of the deputy position, which included lengthy shifts, the sheriff’s department terminated her employment. The employee filed suit alleging that the sheriff’s department violated the ADA by failing to temporarily transfer her to a non-shift, light duty or part-time position and failing to extend her leave by using donated leave from other employees.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected her argument because completing full shifts and maintaining a regular schedule were essential functions of the deputy position. Further, although permitting the employee to take an extended leave of absence by using donated leave from other employees could have been a reasonable accommodation, she failed to show that she ever actually presented this option to the employer. Because the employee had not requested extended leave, the court concluded that “the Sheriff’s duty to provide an accommodation, or to engage in an ‘informal, interactive process’ with respect to that accommodation, was not triggered.”


These cases provide welcome guidance for employers seeking to define the limits of their obligations to participate in the interactive process when addressing accommodations for disabled employees. The decisions reaffirm that an employee is only entitled to a reasonable or “effective” accommodation and may not use the interactive process to redesign the workplace into the ideal setting for addressing a particular disability. Further, the ADA does not require an employer to reallocate job duties and, in essence, change the essential functions of a job in order to accommodate an employee’s disability. And finally, although an employer may be obligated to investigate potential accommodations in certain circumstances, particularly where the necessary accommodation is obvious, an employee must generally propose an accommodation before the requirement to engage in the interactive process is triggered.

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George Patterson