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A Discussion of the ADA Interactive Process for Accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities that will allow them to perform the essential functions of their job. As part of the accommodations process under the ADA, employers and employees are required to participate in an interactive process in order to identify a reasonable and appropriate accommodation. The employer’s obligation with regard to the interactive process is taken very seriously by the courts. A recent case against Northern States Power Company analyzed this obligation.


Workplace Injury Leads to Disability

James Sharbono suffered a workplace electric shock injury in 1991. His injury required amputation of several toes as wells as reconstructive surgery. He returned to work after undergoing rehabilitation, however, his treating physician restricted him from wearing steel-toed boots. Sharbono’s condition was considered a covered medical condition under the ADA.


The Company’s Policy Regarding Protective Footwear Changed


When Sharbono started working at Northern States Power Company in 1993, they had a policy that required employees working in certain hazardous conditions to wear “safety-toe footwear” as defined by the American National Standards Institute’s standards. An exception to this safety policy was allowed when an employee submits a note from their physician stating that they cannot wear such footwear. As a result, Sharbono was able to continue working without wearing steel-toed boots.


However, this policy was changed in 2008. Under the new policy, employees were no longer allowed an exception to wearing the protective footwear. As a result of the new policy, Sharbono was required to start wearing steel-toed boots despite his physician’s medical recommendation.


Northern States Power Company’s Attempts to Accommodate


Purportedly in an effort to mitigate the effects of wearing steel-toed boots on Sharbono’s foot, his employer offered a few suggestions for accommodations. Sharbono obtained modified footwear that would accommodate his condition but they were not compliant with the safety standards. As a result, Sharbono was forced to wear steel-toed boots which immediately caused him discomfort in his injured foot. The pain and discomfort from the boots continued over the next few years.


Beginning in 2011, Sharbono needed to use sick leave more frequently because of his foot. By November, he needed to take intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In April of the next year, Sharbono requested an accommodation for his medical condition. In support of his request, he submitted a note from his physician indicating that it was medically necessary for him to stop wearing the steel-toed boots. However, he did not receive a response to his request.


Employer Denies Requested Accommodations


After the union got involved, the company responded but still denied the requested accommodation. Yet, its offer of accommodation was to assist Sharbono with a 90-day job search to find a different position. Without a reasonable accommodation, Sharbono instead requested to retire and receive the disability benefits to which he was entitled under the collective bargaining agreement in place. At first, the company did not approve the request and indicated that a modified boot could be produced for Sharbono. However, it was ultimately determined that the modified boot would still not meet the required safety standards. Finally, the company placed him on retired status with disability retirement benefits.


Sharbono Sued for Alleged ADA Violations


Specifically, Sharbono alleged that his employer failed to make a good-faith effort to find a reasonable accommodation in several ways. The company took an unreasonable amount of time to respond to his request for an accommodation and then it gave up on the interactive process before a reasonable accommodation could be found. Ultimately, the appellate court agreed with the trial court that Sharbono’s employer participated in the interactive process with him in good faith.


If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!