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Employers to Negotiate Accomodations

 Court Explains Employer's Obligation to Negotiate Accommodations:



New York's highest court ruled that an employer's failure to engage in a good-faith interactive process with a disabled worker generally forecloses that employer from obtaining summary judgment should that worker bring a disability discrimination claim.


Case: Jacobsen v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., No. 34, 03/27/2014, published.


Facts: William Jacobsen began working for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. in 1979.


His position as an assistant health facilities planner required that he visit construction sites within the Manhattan area about two times per week. The rest of the week, Jacobsen worked at HHC's central office in Manhattan.


In 1982, Jacobsen's job duties changed so that he began checking larger scale construction projects in the Bellevue area, but his basic schedule and responsibilities remained the same.


Doctors diagnosed Jacobsen with a form of pulmonary dysfunction in 2005, the same year HHC assigned him to begin overseeing projects at the Queens Hospital Center.


HHC was conducting extensive renovations and asbestos abatement at the QHC. To perform this new assignment, Jacobsen had to move his office to QHC and visit the construction site frequently.


In September 2005, Jacobsen received a new diagnosis of pneumoconiosis, an occupational lung disease caused by repeated and prolonged inhalation of asbestos or other dust particles.


The following month, Jacobsen requested a leave of absence so he could undergo an open lung biopsy.


When his doctor certified his ability to return to work, the doctor instructed that Jacobsen was not to be exposed to any type of environmental dust.


Jacobsen returned to work at QHC and resumed his visits to the construction site, but he complained he was having difficulty breathing. He asked his supervisor to provide him with protective respiratory equipment and to reassign him to the central office in Manhattan.


HHC's director gave him a dust mask, but Jacobsen didn't always use it because it impeded his ability to communicate. He requested a respirator instead.


When the requested respirator and transfer didn't transpire, Jacobsen filed a disability discrimination complaint against HHC with the New York State Division of Human Rights.


Approximately two days later, HHC placed him on unpaid medical leave status.

In August 2006, Jacobsen's doctor sent a letter to HHC stating that Jacobsen would never be cleared to perform the duties of his position again.


HHC then terminated Jacobsen.


Procedural History: In March 2008, Jacobsen sued HHC for having discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, in violation of the state's Human Rights Law and New York City's Human Rights Law.


He further claimed that HHC had engaged in gross negligence by exposing him to environmental dust without providing him with protective respiratory equipment.


A Supreme Court justice granted summary judgment in favor of HHC. The justice reasoned that there was no reasonable accommodation that HHC could have made for Jacobsen because his own medical evidence established that he couldn't return to work at his old job.


The justice also said his gross negligence cause of action was time-barred.


A divided Appellate Division panel upheld the justice's ruling.


Analysis: The Court of Appeals concluded that summary judgment was improper.

The court noted that the New York Human Rights Law and the City Human Rights Law set forth distinct legal standards for establishing the existence of a covered disability that can be reasonably accommodated, however under both statutory schemes, the court said both statutes generally preclude summary judgment in favor of an employer where the employer has failed to demonstrate that it responded to a disabled employee's request for a particular accommodation by engaging in a good-faith interactive process regarding the feasibility of that accommodation.


The court said the record demonstrated that HHC had only "limited interactions" with Jacobsen about how his disability could be accommodated.


In light of the evidence that Jacobsen had been able to work at HHC's central office for decades doing only limited onsite work, and that he might be able to continue working there despite his disability, the court said there was a triable issue as to whether Jacobsen's proposed accommodations, or any other potential accommodation, was reasonable.


To read the decision, click here.


Source: WorkCompCentral

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