B&B Partner David E. Belfort was recently called upon by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (“MLW”) to comment on the Massachusetts U.S. District Court decision of Rivera v. Altranais Home Care LLC. The case was featured in the January 28, 2022 issue of MLW in an article titled “Failure-to -Accommodate Claim Survives Summary Judgment” and centered on a decision issued by Judge Katherine A. Robertson in which she determined that an alleged failure to engage in the interactive process was a jury question. The Court determined that it was a question of fact as to whether the Plaintiff, Jennifer Lee Rivera, was reasonably accommodated based on specifications in her doctor’s letter. She added that a jury may also conclude that the Defendant, Altranais, was not acting in good faith because they neglected to speak with Ms. Rivera or her doctor about her disabilities.
The case highlights include that Ms. Rivera, the employee, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder triggered by confined spaces and stressful situations, and claims she was denied an office with a window by her employer, Altranais. While Ms. Rivera asserted that she needed a private office with a window, her doctor’s note stated only that Ms. Rivera’s anxiety was triggered by closed, crowded spaces. While Ms. Rivera did not immediately object to the assigned location, it is also possible she feared retaliation and needed time to give her assigned location a chance before raising concerns. The breakdown appears to have occurred because the parties never formally sat down to identify why Ms. Rivera needed a window based on her disabilities.
This case emphasizes the importance of both employees and employers getting engaged in the interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation without jumping to conclusions. Plaintiff’s counsel should, whenever possible, work closely with their client’s medical providers so that requests for accommodations are clear, draw a direct connection to the disabling condition, are consistent with the physical workplace, consider the essential functions of the job, and are precise. Employers are advised to approach the interactive process by responding to employee’s requests for accommodation with curiosity and an open mind rather than making assumptions based on preconceived notions of the employees disability or ability to function.