Question: One of our employees requested a disability accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). He suffers from anxiety and depression and his doctor recommended that he not have any interactions with a certain “hostile” coworker. Do we have to do this?
Answer: Probably not, because courts generally don’t consider a request to avoid a specific coworker to be reasonable, except under special circumstances in which a worker can show that approving the request wouldn’t make a difference in an employer’s operations. But you don’t have enough information yet to make a decision under the ADA. HR must initiate and complete the interactive process with the employee (and the doctor) before any decisions are made in response to a request for disability accommodation – even if the request seems unreasonable from the start.
A federal district court in Montana recently considered similar facts and ruled against a former employee on her ADA claims of failure to accommodate and discrimination because the accommodation request that she have no contact with a problematic coworker was unreasonable on its face. The employee suffered from anxiety and depression and had a history of conflict with a certain coworker, who she said exacerbated her symptoms. Management had previously taken action to minimize their interaction by assigning them to different shifts and separate training groups, yet additional conflict occurred. The employee’s healthcare providers said she was unable to work unless she had no contact with the coworker, who they described as “abusive” and expressing “hostility” toward the employee. The company determined that it couldn’t reassign the employee to a position with no contact or interaction with the coworker without significantly disrupting operations. The court ruled in favor of the company. Interacting with other employees was an essential function of the employee’s job. The court noted that the employee wasn’t qualified for other open positions within the company. Nor were there any vacant positions that wouldn’t require her to interact with the coworker to some degree. Under the ADA, if you cannot reasonably accommodate an employee with a disability in their current position, you must consider whether they are minimally qualified for any other vacant positions before separating employment (Rough v. GlaxoSmithKline, D Mont, July 2022).
One point of caution: The court made it clear that it wasn’t adopting a “per se” rule that an accommodation request for no contact is unreasonable as a matter of law. The request was unreasonable under the specific facts of the case. When responding to a similar request, it’s important to seriously explore whether you can reasonably accommodate it. Contact your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney if you need help with any difficult accommodation requests, and see our Legal Guides, ADA: Reasonable Accommodation and the Interactive Process and ADA: Reasonable Accommodation Quick Reference.
On a final note, a report that another employee is being abusive or hostile should trigger an investigation under the company’s anti-harassment policy. In addition to initiating the ADA process, HR may need to separately investigate the harassment allegation. Your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney can also provide guidance on how to investigate and respond to harassment complaints. See our Legal Guide, Harassment in the Workplace: Avoiding Liability.