Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Accommodation claim survives close shave at the Third Circuit

"Close shave" - It's a case about a guy with a skin condition, pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB), who sought an accommodation to not have to shave his face or neck - get it? Full not precedential opinion here: Lewis v. Univ. of Penn.

The Plaintiff/Appellant succeeded in reversing summary judgment on three interesting issues (the Court hit even more issues, but these are just the highlights):

Constructive Discharge
Not official use. 

Constructive discharge is a resignation that is treated like an involuntary firing under the law. Courts look for an abusive and intolerable environment in which a reasonable person would feel compelled to resign. In Lewis, the Court held that evidence of the following was sufficient for a constructive discharge claim to survive summary judgment:
Lewis’s superiors disciplined him, altered his job responsibilities, removed him from a preferred assignment, and threatened Lewis with discharge.
Interactive Process

I try to emphasize this point with employers - yes, there are a bunch of technical requirements about what counts as a disability, what is a reasonable accommodation, when an accommodation constitutes an undue hardship . . . but the ADA requires that employers participate in an interactive process. So, make an effort to engage with the employee to see what you can do to help. As the Court described it, the employer must "engage in a good faith interactive process to identify accommodations."

The trial court dismissed the ADA claim because Lewis never expressly requested his desired accommodation (exemption from a medical certificate requirement). The Third Circuit reversed because Lewis had requested a related accommodation and the employer knew about his disability. This triggered their obligation to engage in the interactive process to identify a reasonable accommodation. Lewis claims he just got a flat denial with no effort to communicate about his needs.

Medical certificate counts as "disability-related inquiry"

Subject to some exceptions, the ADA generally prohibits disability-related medical examinations  and inquiries. Interestingly, the Court relied on EEOC Enforcement Guidance for the definition. "Disability-related inquiries may include . . . asking an employee to provide medical documentation regarding his/her disability." Here, the employer required some kind of medical certificate, so the trial court on remand will have to address whether it was for a legitimate purpose.

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