Let’s face it: work can be stressful. So what’s an employer to do when an employee requests a stress-free or less stressful work environment as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act? As always, it depends. While the ADA generally requires employers to engage in the interactive process to determine whether they can accommodate employees with disabilities, there occasionally are circumstances where they don’t have to do so.
Consider the recent case of the employee who suffered from epilepsy with stress-induced seizures and requested that her supervisor stop having “hostile confrontations” with her and instead provide her with “calm, non-confrontational treatment.” The employer did not respond to the employee’s requests, deeming them unreasonable. While not engaging in the interactive process can be risky, in this instance, the federal district court noted as a threshold matter that employers do not have to investigate a request or engage in the interactive process when the request is “patently unreasonable” or when the request “does not make a sufficiently specific demand.” The court also noted that while employers may sometimes be required to accommodate employees with “specific stressors,” employers are not required to “immunize” employees “from stress and criticism in general.” As the employee did not identify “particular stressors,” but instead generally characterized her supervisor’s management style as involving “hostile confrontations,” the court held that the employee’s requests were unreasonable and not sufficiently specific. As a result, the employer did not violate the ADA by choosing not to respond to the employee’s requests. Hargett v. Florida Atlantic University, 2016 WL 6634912 (S.D. Fla. Nov. 8, 2016)
Similarly, another federal district court addressed a request by an employee with mental health conditions for a “peaceful calm environment where [she] didn’t feel threatened for [her] safety emotionally or physically.” The Court held that the request was too vague to require action by the employer and granted summary judgment to the employer. Posteraro v. RBS Citizens, N.A., 159 F.Supp.3d 277 (D.N.H. 2016)
However, other courts have allowed some claims to proceed to a jury where employers failed to consider such requests or provided ineffective accommodations. In a case brought under the Washington state law equivalent to the ADA, an employee who had been diagnosed with HIV and Kaposi’s sarcoma requested accommodations to reduce his stress and exhaustion. Specifically, the employee requested that his employer keep “stress levels as low as possible” and provide him with “adequate rest,” uninterrupted 30-minute lunches and weekly meetings with his supervisor. While the employer agreed to those accommodations, the employee presented evidence that lunches were interrupted, weekly meetings did not take place as scheduled and the employee was forced to work longer hours, adding to his stress and further destabilizing his immune system. The employee complained about the inadequacy of the accommodations provided, but the employer did not take any action in response. On those facts, the court declined to grant summary judgment to the employer and allowed the case to go forward toward trial. Edman v. Kindred Nursing Ctrs. West, LLC, No. 2:14-cv-01280 (W.D. Wash. Nov. 21, 2016).
In another case last year in Puerto Rico, an employee who had a back injury that limited her ability to stand and walk requested a temporary demotion to an assistant branch manager position because performing her current branch manager duties, while also attending medical and therapy appointments for her injury, was causing her a lot of stress. The employer denied that request, offering her a customer account specialist position instead. The employee rejected that position, maintaining that it was either equally or more stressful than her current position. Siding with the employee, the court held that the specific demotion requested by the employee could be deemed a reasonable accommodation by a jury, and thus, denied summary judgment to the employer, allowing the case to progress. Vasquez-Robles v. CommoLoco, Inc., 2016 WL 2851323 (D.P.R. May 13, 2016)
The bottom line is that employers should use caution when considering stress-related requests for accommodations from employees.