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One Meeting About Accommodating a Disability is Insufficient!

Nicolas Smith worked as a welder for Northrop when he was involved in an off-duty motorcycle accident in 2011, and as a result, became a quadriplegic.  After Nicolas’ FMLA leave expired, Northrop accommodated him by extending his medical leave for the duration of its’ two-year leave program, through May 1st, 2013. 

During Nicolas Smith’s leave, in 2012, his doctor notified Northrop that Nicolas was able to “return to work with restrictions” but was unable to perform any manual labor.  The letter stated that Nicolas could work in a “managerial capacity” and perform tasks “not involving heavy physical labor”.  

In May of 2012, Nicolas Smith had a meeting with Northrop employees and a union steward to discuss his work restrictions, and potential accommodations.   He stated that he wished to RETURN TO WORK, and offered ways in which he could contribute to Northrop.   Northrop then considered Smith for a tool stock controller position, but he wasn’t hired. 

On February 21st, 2013 Northrop sent Nicolas Smith a letter informing him that his two-year leave of absence would expire in May.  In March 2013, Nicolas again expressed in writing his desire to return to work and sent a doctor’s note saying that he was cleared to return to work, and that his duties would be limited “only by his restricted ability to navigate in smaller spaces”.  Nicolas left at least FIVE voicemail messages about returning to work, but Northrop employees returned none of his messages. 

On May 7th, 2013 Northrop terminated Nicolas Smith, claiming that he had exceeded the two-year leave of absence extended to him.   Smith sued for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability.  

Northrop countered that Smith was not discriminated against based on his disability because he could not meet the essential functions of a welder position, building ships.  The Court agreed, stating that “it does not appear that there is a genuine dispute as to whether Smith could perform the essential functions of a welder”. 

Northrop argued that it satisfied its duty to engage in the “interactive process” when it held the one face-to-face meeting with Smith and his union steward, to discuss his employment, and when they interviewed him for the open tool stock controller position.  

The Court disagreed, noting that Northrop failed to respond to even one of Smith’s voicemail messages and failed to tell him about other potential positions for which he could apply. 

“Therefore” the Court stated, “a reasonable juror could find that Northrop failed to engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process”.   Smith v Northrop Grumman 2015