On March 6, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that the district court did not err in its jury instruction about the legal consequences of an employee’s failure to cooperate with her employer in identifying a reasonable accommodation. Sansone v. Brennan, Postmaster General of the United States, No. 17-3534 & No. 17-3632 (7th Cir. March 6, 2019). The plaintiff, a postal employee confined to a wheelchair, was for years provided by the Postal Service with a parking spot with room to deploy his van’s wheelchair ramp, until it took that spot away and failed to provide him with a suitable replacement. He filed a lawsuit against the Postal Service, alleging that it failed to accommodate his disability. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and he recovered compensatory damages, as well as back pay and front pay. The Service appealed on various grounds, including a jury instruction that it claimed was erroneous regarding the required interactive process between an employer and employee to find a reasonable accommodation.
The plaintiff sued the Service under the Rehabilitation Act (which is interpreted according to the same principles as the Americans with Disabilities Act) for constructive discharge and failure to accommodate. The case proceeded to trial, and the plaintiff won $300,000 in compensatory damages. He was also awarded back pay and front pay in the amount of $828,774. To prevail on a failure to accommodate claim, an employee must prove that: (1) she was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer was aware of her disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. Relevant to the third element is the employer and employee’s respective cooperation in the required interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation. The Service contended that the district court erroneously instructed the jury about the consequences of an employee’s failure to cooperate in the interactive process. The interactive process is a means for identifying a reasonable accommodation, rather than an end in itself. Because the process is not an end in itself, an employer cannot be liable solely for refusing to take part in it. An employer’s failure to engage in the interactive process cannot give rise to employer liability if no reasonable accommodation was possible, or if the employer reasonably accommodated the employee. However, if a reasonable accommodation is possible and the employer did not offer it, the third element of a failure to accommodate claim turns on the interactive process requirement, in which case responsibility will lie with the party that caused the breakdown. According to the Service, the court should not have instructed the jury that it could render a verdict for the plaintiff even if he was at fault for the breakdown of the interactive process. The court instructed the jury that, “[n]either party can win this case solely because the other did not cooperate in that [interactive] process in the way that the party believed appropriate, but you may consider whether a party cooperated in that process when deciding whether a reasonable accommodation existed.” The Service argued that the instruction that “neither party can win this case solely because the other did not cooperate” is inconsistent with existing law. When an employer takes an active, good-faith role in the interactive process, it will not be liable if the employee refuses to participate or withholds essential information. However, the Service picked out the “neither party can win” phrase from the jury instructions and read it out of context. When read in context, with the qualifier “in the way that the party believed appropriate,” that phrase means that neither party can win solely because they believed that the other party did not cooperate. Therefore, the jury instruction was proper.