ADA cases are so fact-specific it can sometimes be hard to make valuable generalizations. When it comes to figuring out if a reasonable accommodation exists, though, it’s pretty safe to say it’s almost always about the process. A recent Ninth Circuit case, FEHA v. Lucent Technologies, is a nice example of a process done right.
The case involved a product installer whose duties required physical strength and stamina (as was appropriately spelled out in his job description). When the employee suffered a back injury at work, he received a year of paid leave under the employer’s policies. He kept trying to come back to work, submitting various doctor’s notes stating he could come back with significant lifting restrictions. Each time he contacted the company, his supervisors debated whether there was a position that could accommodate his limitations. Each time, they concluded there was not. Eventually, the employee underwent a couple of work-sponsored functional capacity examinations to determine his lifting abilities. The results: he could not lift the requisite amount (per the job description). Accordingly, he was terminated.
The Ninth Circuit — typically known for its employee-friendly stance — held the employer met its obligations under the ADA (and state law) because it interacted with the employee, time and time again, to determine whether there was a position that could accommodate his restrictions.
The case is good news for employers who grapple with accommodation issues, as it demonstrates that at some point, enough is enough and you can terminate. The key is to not pull the trigger too soon and to engage in a comprehensive interactive process first.