Young-man, there’s a need to feel down (after losing ADA claim)

Aug 7, 2018

Control Room WorkerIt’s wedding season, which means people across Illinois have been hitting the dance floor to perform their best rendition of the Y.M.C.A. dance. But, as we all know, some of us are more coordinated dancers than others. If an employee who is injured while dancing to the Y.M.C.A. wants to request an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, then the employee has to participate in an interactive process with the employer to determine a reasonable accommodation. But as a court recently held, if an employee cuts out of the interactive dance too early, then he jeopardizes his claim that the employer failed to accommodate.

You can hang out with all the boys

Edward Youngman worked as a youth counselor for the Chief Judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit in Peoria, Illinois and was assigned to the Peoria County Juvenile Detention Center. Youngman had a thyroidectomy in November 2011, resulting in hypothyroidism and calcium deficiency.

Youth Counselors were assigned to work in the control room at the detention center, where they could electronically monitor and control the center. The control room had computer monitors which displayed security camera footage, switchboards, a radio, a telephone and had overhead florescent lights.

Youngman was assigned to work in the control room for the week of July 29, 2012 through August 2, 2012. Youngman worked for two days but called in sick on July 31. On August 1, Youngman provided a doctor’s note signed by Dr. Jacob Doering stating “Patient can not work in control room due to medical concerns.” That same day, Brian Brown, a superintendent, gave Youngman a letter stating that Dr. Doering’s letter was too vague and requesting additional information such as what work restrictions he was actually requesting and what duties within the control room he could not perform.

Youngman, are you listening to me?

On August 5, Youngman responded by stating that the only restriction he was requesting was to not work in the control room due to his concern of motion sickness. Brown then told Youngman he needed to submit to a fit-for-duty exam. After the exam, Dr. Hauter, who performed the exam, indicated Youngman was qualified to work but with certain restrictions including, no viewing of multiple TV screens, avoiding rapid alternating movements and avoiding flashing lights.

Brown met with Youngman on August 12 to explain that, based on his restrictions, he was going to be placed on medical leave of absence until his conditioned improved. Youngman asked if he could just not work in the control room but Brown said he could not do that. Neither party proposed another accommodation at that time.

Youngman requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act which was granted on September 6, 2012. Youngman was instructed to provide an update on his condition on September 24, 2012 and then every 30 days thereafter.

At first, Youngman provided the monthly updates but he stopped after he accepted a new job in April 2013. Brown sent two letters in August 2013. First, he asked Youngman for an update and then, after Youngman failed to provide the information, Brown told him that his failure to provide the requested information had been deemed insubordination. On September 29, Youngman tried to resign by facsimile but his resignation was rejected and, instead, he was terminated for insubordination.

There’s a place you can go

Youngman filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Chief Judge, as a representative of the detention center, and others alleging the detention center failed to accommodate his disability. To establish a claim for failure to accommodate, Youngman needed to show: (1) he was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the detention center was aware of his disability; (3) the detention center failed to reasonably accommodate the disability.

To determine a reasonable accommodation, the ADA requires that the employer and the employee engage in an interactive process. If the employee shows the disability was not reasonably accommodated, the employer will be liable only if it bears responsibility for the breakdown in the interactive process.

The detention center asked the court to enter judgment in its favor without trial, arguing, among other things, that Youngman was responsible for a breakdown in the interactive process. The court noted that while there is no hard and fast rule to determine whether the employee or the employer caused the breakdown, courts look at factors such as: failure to participate in good faith, or failure by one party to make reasonable efforts to help the other party determine what specific accommodations are necessary. A party that obstructs or delays the process is not acting in good faith. Additionally, a party that fails to communicate or fails to respond may also be acting in bad faith.

Down and out with the blues

The court agreed that Youngman was responsible for the breakdown, noting that Youngman did not provide the necessary clarifications concerning his medical restrictions in order for the detention center to determine a proper accommodation. The court noted that the information provided by Youngman and his doctor was inadequate, or at best, incomplete. For instance, the first doctor’s note was vague and just stated Youngman could not work in the control room for medical reasons.

The second doctor’s note also contained broad and sweeping restrictions. In the second note, Dr. Doering indicated that Youngman’s motion sickness was due to “lights, noise, cameras, tv’s.” But the detention center had cameras, monitors, and identical fluorescent lighting throughout the facility, not just in the control room. As such, the court determined that it was not unreasonable for the detention center to request additional information or place Youngman on medical leave, pending additional information.

Finally, the court noted that Youngman was further responsible for the breakdown in communication after he failed to provide medical updates from his doctors after going on leave and after he failed to show up for his scheduled meetings with Brown. According to the court, Youngman’s actions were “fatal” to his case. Victory dance for the detention center and the Chief Judge. Youngman v. Kouri, No. 16-cv-1005 (C.D. Ill. June 28, 2018).

They can start you back on your way

The adage that it takes two to tango is as true with the ADA as it is in dancing. An employee who requests an accommodation but then refuses to provide information reasonably requested by the employer, or otherwise fails to cooperate or communicate with the employer, may be found responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process contemplated by the ADA. That, in turn, will almost guarantee that his request for an accommodation will be his swan song.

Kelly Smith Haley HeadshotThis article was written by Kelly Smith Haley who is the a partner in the Employment Law Group at Fox Swibel, and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter.
She can be reached at [email protected].