One of the many difficult issues employers face under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is determining what information a disabled employee must provide to an employer to trigger the employer’s duty to accommodate a disability. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit addressed that question for the first time in Owens v. Georgia, No. 21-13200 (11th Cir. Nov. 9, 2022).
While the Court was evaluating a claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA is construed consistent with the Rehabilitation Act. The Court has provided employers some guidance to assist with navigating the complex waters surrounding the interactive process between the employer and employee to determine reasonable accommodations.
The Eleventh Circuit has jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
In 2016, Nicole Owens began working for the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) as a web content specialist. In early 2018, Owens informed GOSA that she had a high-risk pregnancy. She took and exhausted her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave entitlement shortly before giving birth. Subsequently, Owens notified her immediate supervisor that she was experiencing childbirth-related complications. Owens provided a doctor’s note advising that she “delivered a baby by cesarean section,” that she was “doing well,” and that she “may return to work via tele-work from her home.”
GOSA’s executive director believed this note qualified as a medical release to return to work and approved the request to work from home. However, she did not believe that Owens’ request to work from home was due to any medical complications that would prevent her from working in the office. Rather, she allowed Owens to telework temporarily so she could make childcare arrangements.
Thereafter, Owens continued to have post-delivery medical appointments and kept her supervisor apprised of her status. Owens provided a second doctor’s note dated September 11, 2018, which advised that she “may return to work November 5, 2018” and “may continue to telework at home until then.”
GOSA determined that additional medical documentation was needed to determine whether any accommodations other than working from home were reasonable. GOSA’s Human Resources Department sent Owens accommodation paperwork for her doctor to complete. In the following weeks, GOSA asked Owens to provide the completed accommodation paperwork, but she failed to do so explaining that she was unable to “expedite” the “internal processes” of the doctor’s office. Subsequently, GOSA issued Owens a final directive advising that her “[f]ailure to provide the completed reasonable accommodation documentation” by October 10, 2018, or “to return to the worksite” by October 11, 2018, “may result in termination of [Owens’] employment.”
On October 11, 2018, Owens notified HR that she had not received her medical documentation and that she would not be returning to work onsite that day. On that same date, GOSA terminated Owens’ employment for her failure to adhere to GOSA’s directive.
Owens brought claims against GOSA alleging failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Rehabilitation Act and discrimination under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of GOSA, finding Owens never triggered GOSA’s obligation to accommodate her because Owens failed to identify a specific disability or explain how remote work would accommodate it. Further, the court found that, even if Owens triggered GOSA’s duty to accommodate her, Owens was responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process. As to the remaining claims, the court found that Owens failed to demonstrate GOSA’s reasons for terminating her employment were a pretext for discrimination or retaliation.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case. It held that to request a reasonable accommodation, an employee must (1) identify the specific disability and (2) suggest how the accommodation will alleviate the workplace challenges posed by the specific disability.
Even though Owens made a request for accommodation (teleworking), the appeals court said, she failed to put her employer on notice of the disability for which she sought an accommodation and failed to provide enough information to allow the employer to understand how the accommodation would address the limitations her disability presented.
The Eleventh Circuit noted that neither childbirth nor pregnancy qualifies as a disability. Owens’ childbirth-related complications may have been caused by or may have caused a disability, but she did not identify what that disability was in any of her communications with GOSA.
Because Owens failed to identify a disability, she similarly failed to explain how her request to telework would accommodate her disability. Her doctor’s notes were inadequate, because they did not explain how her requested accommodation would alleviate any physical or mental limitation.
The Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that while employees, when requesting an accommodation, are not required to provide detailed or private information about a disability, they must explain generally how an accommodation would assist them with overcoming a physical or mental impairment.
The information that an employee must provide will depend on the particulars of each situation. Sometimes, there is a clear connection between the disability and the requested accommodation, such as an employee with an obvious mobility impairment seeking accommodation for access to a workstation. However, where the link between a person’s physical or mental limitations and the requested accommodation is unclear, the Eleventh Circuit determined that it is reasonable to require the employee to specifically inform the employer about how the accommodation sought will address the limitations before requiring the employer to initiate the interactive process. Simply providing a doctor’s note requesting an accommodation is not enough. The documentation provided by the employee (or employee’s doctor) must identify the specific disability and explain how the accommodation would alleviate the restrictions posed by the disability.
The Eleventh Circuit also determined that failure to timely return accommodation paperwork can be a legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reason to terminate an employee’s employment. Employers should clearly establish deadlines to return or complete accommodation paperwork and communicate the consequences of failing to timely do so. When enforcing deadlines, however, an employer should be flexible if the employee is making good faith efforts to obtain the necessary information.
The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion provides helpful guidance for employers. Of course, the various circuit courts sometimes differ on how legal issues should be analyzed. If you have questions regarding how best to handle a particular request for accommodation and return to work, please reach out to one of our dedicated HR professionals.