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When is an Employer on Notice of an Employee’s Request for Reasonable Accommodation of a Disability? A Recent Maryland Court of Appeals Case Provides Guidance.

Employers who are faced with disabled employees face very specific legal duties to accommodate those employees and to continue to provide them positions in the workplace under certain circumstances.  On July 30, 2015, Court of Special Appeals issued a decision in Adkins v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center that explains how navigating those duties can be challenging.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act prohibit discrimination based on disability.  Employers must make reasonable accommodations for an otherwise qualified employee known to have a disability.  Employers, however, cannot be expected to accommodate disabilities of which they have no knowledge.  The Adkins case suggests that employers may benefit from establishing a clear written policy for providing notice to the employer requesting reasonable accommodation for disability.

In Adkins, the Court of Special Appeals considered whether a disabled employee took sufficient steps to notify her employer of her disability and her need for accommodation.  To receive an accommodation, an employee must communicate his or her disability to the employer and the desire for an accommodation. The Adkins Court held that “[t]he employee need not submit a formal request for an accommodation, nor use ‘magic phrases’; instead, the employee must provide the employer with ‘adequate notice’ of his disability and the need for an accommodation.”  Whether the employee supplied adequate notice is based on the totality of the circumstances.

The trial court initially dismissed the case on summary judgment, stating that it was “undisputed that [the employee] never approached [the employer] about any specific reasonable accommodations that would enable her to perform the essential duties of her employment.”  The Court of Special Appeals disagreed and reversed the lower court, pointing to the facts that the employee told her supervisor and a nurse with the Employee Health Office of her disability.  Additionally, her supervisors knew that she was applying for other positions that were less physically demanding in order to remain employed.

The discrepancy between the findings of the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals in this case highlights the question: What could the employer have done to ensure it received adequate notice of the employee’s disability and request for accommodation?  Based on the facts stated in the case, it does not appear that the employer maintained a clear written policy in an employee handbook or employee manual for employees to request an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act.  In this case, the employer could have benefited from a formal written procedure by which those employees believing themselves to be disabled could request an accommodation.  Though determining whether an employee gave adequate notice of a disability and a request for accommodation is adjudged according to the totality of the circumstances, instituting a formal written policy for notice and an accommodation request may assist employers and decrease the possibility of a lawsuit over such issues.

The Adkins v. Peninsula Regional Medical Center opinion is available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/cosa/2015/0712s14.pdf

Proper documentation and communication between employee and employer may be essential in ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act.  The Kagan Law Group can assist employers in establishing procedures to manage employee disability and other employment law matters.  The Kagan Law Group is a business, employment, and civil litigation firm based in Annapolis, Maryland.  Contact us at (410) 216-7900 or visit our website at www.kaganlawgroup.com for more information about how our law firm can help.

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