Can an employer simply ignore a request by a disabled employee for an accommodation made in a meeting that could lead to the employee’s termination? A recent federal case from Wisconsin says no. In the case, the former employee, who is legally deaf, was employed as a sales associate in a national retail store. A confrontation between the employee and two store managers, occurring during a meeting in which the employee requested an accommodation related to his participation in the meeting, led to the employee’s termination.
On the day of the confrontation, the employee told two store managers that he suspected a customer was shoplifting. The managers told the employee to follow the usual store protocol for suspected shoplifting. This protocol included asking the suspected shoplifter if he/she needed help, cleaning in the area where the suspected shoplifter was, and other steps. After giving the employee these instructions, one of the managers left the store and the other manager left the sales floor. The employee was upset that these managers did not assist with the suspected shoplifter. As a result, after the employee finished his shift for the day, the employee confronted both managers and told them he would never again deal with suspected shoplifters. During this meeting, the employee asked for a sign language interpreter to help him communicate in the meeting. This request was apparently ignored by the managers. The two managers claimed that the employee said in the meeting that he was quitting. The employee claimed that he never said he was quitting in the meeting. The employee’s employment was terminated based on the two managers’ version that the employee had quit.
The employee filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim and alleged that his employer failed to reasonably accommodate him by refusing to provide an interpreter as requested. The judge denied the employer’s motion to have the case thrown out of court, finding that the failure to provide an interpreter during the meeting about the handling of the shoplifter led to a misunderstanding about whether the employee said he was quitting. The court concluded that providing an interpreter could be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and that a jury should therefore decide whether the employer’s failure to provide the interpreter constituted a failure to accommodate under the ADA.
This recent case is a reminder that an employer should carefully consider accommodation requests made at any time during a disabled employee’s employment. This would include an accommodation request made in a meeting that could lead to discipline or termination. Whether the accommodation requested is reasonable and whether it needs to be made will depend on the particular circumstances. But simply ignoring or summarily denying a request for accommodation made at any stage in the disabled employee’s employment could lead to liability if a court or jury later decides that the employer could have and should have provided the accommodation.