Contact Us

May 21st, Appeals Court Affirms Reasonable Accommodation

The Second Circuit Appeals court recently affirmed a lower court decision which could be very good news for employers.  In Noll v. IBM Corporation the Appeals Court granted the employer summary judgment on the employee’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act .   Specifically, the Second Circuit held that:

  1. (i)the employer reasonably accommodated plaintiff by providing American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreters capable of translating intranet files; and
  2. (ii)in light of this accommodation, plaintiff had no claim under the ADA that the employer failed to engage in the interactive process.

Plaintiff, a software engineer, sued for disability discrimination under the ADA claiming that his employer did not reasonably accommodate his hearing disability because his employer did not ensure that all audio and/or video files stored on the corporate Intranet were posted with captions or with transcripts.   The employer argued that it provided plaintiff with a reasonable and effective accommodation – providing plaintiff with access to ASL interpreters.  At question here was if the employer must provide THE requested accommodation for the employee, or if they only have to provide A reasonable accommodation.

The Appeals Court rejected the employee’s argument that ASL interpreters were “not as effective as captioning” because, in determining whether a reasonable accommodation was made, “the law requires an effective accommodation, not the one that is most effective for each employee.”   By providing qualified ASL interpreters for the plaintiff, the employer reasonably accommodated plaintiff’s disability.  The Second Circuit also held that while the need to split visual focus between the ASL interpreter and the video “was a disadvantage that likely tired or annoyed [plaintiff]… this disadvantage does not render interpretive services ineffective” because it can be “expected that many accommodations of deafness—ASL interpretive services as well as captioning—will tax visual attention to some degree.”  The Appeals Court held that an “accommodation for deafness therefore cannot be rendered ineffective by the need to divide visual attention.”

The Second Circuit also held that the employer’s decision not to initiate an “informal, interactive process” with plaintiff to assess whether his disability can be reasonably accommodated, did not give rise to a separate cause of action because the “ADA imposes no liability for an employer’s failure to explore alternative accommodations when the accommodations provided to the employee were ‘plainly reasonable.’”  Since the employer provided a reasonable accommodation to plaintiff, the employer’s “failure to engage in an interactive process—even if supported by the record—did not give rise to a discrimination claim.”

The good news for employers is that the ADA does not require employers to provide employees with their preferred or even the most effective accommodation.  Rather, the employer’s obligation under the ADA is to provide a “reasonable” and  an “effective accommodation” for an employee’s disability.