October 2023 Newsletter

ADA Claim – Failure to Accommodate

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined a deaf employee could proceed to trial under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) over an employer's failure to provide text message summaries of safety meetings and an interpreter at a disciplinary hearing as accommodations.

The plaintiff, who is deaf, was hired at O'Reilly Auto Parts as a materials handler. Before their work began each night, the team members participated in a brief mandatory meeting to discuss the tasks for the shift, go over any concerns and provide safety information. Because he was deaf, the plaintiff could not understand what was being said in those meetings or participate in them. The plaintiff asked his supervisor to start sending him text messages summarizing the nightly meetings, and his supervisor agreed. However, the supervisor repeatedly failed to carry through with the texts. 

During his tenure at O'Reilly, the plaintiff received disciplinary warnings for being absent or tardy. O'Reilly issued the plaintiff a documented verbal warning for missing work from July 5th to July 14th.

At his orientation the prior April, the plaintiff had requested the first four days off for a planned family trip and understood that it had been approved. The second part of that July absence the plaintiff got sick. 

The plaintiff requested an interpreter to discuss the disciplinary write-up for missing work in July, but O'Reilly did not provide him with one. According to the plaintiff, due to the lack of an interpreter he was unable to resolve the disciplinary dispute favorably. Because there was no favorable resolution of that dispute, the attendance violations remained on his record. The plaintiff subsequently received additional warnings for attendance, culminating in a final warning. The same day he received the final warning, the plaintiff submitted his resignation. 

The plaintiff claimed that the company discriminated against him in violation of the ADA because it did not provide him with the reasonable accommodations that he requested for his disability. Because the plaintiff's disability is his deafness, he must show that any failure to accommodate his deafness negatively impacted the hiring, promotion, firing, compensation, training or other terms, conditions or privileges of the plaintiff's employment. 

The court explained that one could reasonably determine that the plaintiff's inability to understand or participate in the pre-shift meetings adversely affected the terms, conditions and privileges of his employment. The court noted that a manager testified that important safety information was disseminated at these mandatory nightly meetings and that if an employee didn't hear this safety information, that would be a "failure." 

Safety, the 11th Circuit commented, is "self-evidently a condition of employment in a warehouse, and a failure in regard to it is an important failure." The court surmised that if the plaintiff had been provided with more-complete summaries of, or an interpreter for, these meetings, he would have received higher ratings in at least some of the categories of his evaluations, which would have meant higher pay. 

The court then addressed the plaintiff's argument that, without an interpreter, he did not have an adequate opportunity to resolve his dispute about his absence and the discipline that was imposed on him because of it. Since the plaintiff's attendance record was a factor in his evaluations, the court found that one could reasonably find that the discipline imposed on the plaintiff for those attendance-related issues adversely impacted his scores, which in turn adversely impacted the amount of the pay raises the plaintiff received. 

O'Reilly maintained that it did not have to provide an interpreter for the plaintiff to participate in mandatory nightly meetings or to resolve his disciplinary dispute about attendance because those were not essential functions of his job.  

However, the court dismissed this argument. The court found that the nightly safety meetings and understanding what was said during them were essential components of the plaintiff's employment. With respect to the disciplinary meetings, a manager testified that the "coachings" that flow from the disciplinary process are designed to help team members improve and succeed, and the result of the plaintiff's disciplinary proceedings directly affected the amount of pay raises the plaintiff received.

Key Takeaway: Employers must ensure that employees with disabilities have access to information that is provided to other similarly situated employees without disabilities, regardless of whether they need it to perform their jobs.

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