A recent federal court decision said that merely communicatingthe existence of a disability is not enough to trigger anemployer's duty to accommodate.

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My cold, black employment-law heart is numb to just aboutanything.

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I remember this one time, early in my career, when I had todepose a teenage female plaintiff and ask her, with her motherpresent in the room, whether it offended her that her alleged malesexual harasser wanted to have a threesome with her and hermother.

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Back then, it seemed salacious. Now, it's like, whatever. Mostof this stuff just rolls off of my shoulders.

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But I do have a soft spot for failure-to-accommodate cases underthe Americans with Disabilities Act.

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For, I get how hard it is for an employee to have to share withan employer—let alone anyone—that the employee has [insert name ofdisability]. It's a very vulnerable position.

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Triggering a Duty

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The Americans with Disabilities Act tasks employers withproviding reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilitiesto allow them to perform the essential functions of the job.

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However, as hard as it for an employee to communicate to anemployer that he/she has a disability, a recent federal courtdecision reminds us that merely communicating the existence of adisability is not enough to trigger an employer's duty toaccommodate.

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In Wallace v. Heartland Community College, the court noted that,while the plaintiff did make her employer aware that she had adisability which was causing her “stress and pain” at work, shefailed to communicate how she wanted her employer to accommodateher disability.

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And although “requests for accommodations need not becommunicated through formal channels,” and there may have been somesemblance of a reasonable accommodation discussion, the courtdetermined that the plaintiff was responsible for the breakdown ofthe interactive process that failed to result in identifying areasonable accommodation.

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Easier for Requests

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The case provides a good lesson to employers and employees alikeabout the importance of open communication and cooperation indetermining what accommodation(s), if any, will allow the employeeto perform the essential functions of the job. Although the law mayplace the onus on the employee to advance the ball, at leastinitially, when discussing workplace accommodations, proactiveemployers should facilitate these discussions by educatingemployees, through policy and training, about the ways in whichemployees can make these requests.

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