The Western District of Washington recently emphasized that the obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to engage in good faith interactive dialogue when seeking an accommodation that will permit an employee with a disability to perform his or her job applies to employees as well as employers. In Huge v Boeing Co. (W.D. Wash. March 4, 2016), following a bench trial the court found the employee had failed to present evidence that her employer, Boeing Co., did not take reasonable measures to accommodate her Asperger’s Syndrome where the record showed the employee repeatedly engaged in obstructive and uncooperative behavior in response to Boeing’s proposed accommodations.
The plaintiff, Kathleen Huge, was an industrial engineer at Boeing who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. After significant job performance issues, Huge presented Boeing with a letter from her doctor describing her condition and requesting that she receive all work instructions in writing. After discussing this accommodation with Huge, Boeing agreed to provide all work instructions in verbal and written form.
Boeing then placed Huge on medical leave so it could evaluate her condition and determine the feasibility of accommodations. While she was on leave, Huge, through numerous doctors and counsel, requested a number of different and contradictory accommodations, including reversing her previous request for written instructions and then insisting on a permanent job coach.
When Boeing requested that Huge submit to an independent medical evaluation, Huge and her counsel canceled scheduled exams and made a variety of extraordinary requests, such as demanding that a personal assistant accompany Huge to the exam. As a result, Huge never submitted to an examination.
Additionally, when Huge finally returned from medical leave, she failed to complete her assigned tasks and appeared to be spending the majority of her time at work attempting to build a lawsuit against Boeing. Indeed, even though Boeing provided Huge with job coaches, she failed to use these resources to improve her job performance and instead sought to use the coaches as witnesses for a potential lawsuit against the company. When Boeing ultimately terminated Huge for poor performance she filed suit alleging discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate her disability in violation of the ADA and state law.
After a bench trial, the court held Huge’s failure to engage in the interactive process in good faith defeated her failure to accommodate claim. The court noted that, “the interactive process requires communication and good-faith exploration of possible accommodations between employer and employee and neither side can delay or obstruct the process.” Applying this standard, the court found that Boeing attempted in good faith to provide Huge with reasonable accommodations, including written instructions, unpaid leave, and job coaches. Further, the court cited Boeing’s patient and thoughtful approach to Huge’s numerous requests.
In contrast, the court found that Huge did not exercise good faith in the interactive process. In making this determination, the court cited her contradictory requests, her refusal to submit to an independent medical examination, and the fact that, upon her return to Boeing from medical leave, she spent the majority of her time attempting to marshal evidence for a lawsuit instead of performing her work-related tasks. Finally, the court concluded that Huge’s failure to engage in good faith in the interactive process discharged Boeing from its obligation to provide her with a reasonable accommodation.
The responsibility of employers to engage in the interactive process in good faith is frequently the central focus in ADA failure to accommodate claims (see our previous post on this topic here). However, Huge makes clear that employees have a similar obligation and that those who abuse this process, hinder examinations and fail to avail themselves of offered accommodations are unlikely to find courts sympathetic. Consequently, employers should thoughtfully participate in the interactive process and document all steps taken with the expectation that even if the process is ultimately unsuccessful, an employer’s good faith efforts will often be sufficient to defeat any subsequent lawsuit for failure to accommodate under the ADA.