Interpretation of an Interpreter Request? 11th Circuit Weighs in on Accommodation of Deaf Employee
Jordan Dyer is a co-author of this post and is a Summer Associate at Bradley.
Your employee requests a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) but you refuse to grant it. If the employee continues to perform their job, can the employee still sue you for refusing the accommodation? In Beasley v. O’Reilly Auto Parts, the 11th Circuit says yes, but clarifies that an employee must show that the failure to accommodate adversely impacted the employee’s hiring, firing, compensation, training, or other terms, conditions, and privileges of his or her employment.
Teddy Beasley, who is deaf and primarily communicates through American Sign Language, worked for O’Reilly Auto Parts. According to Beasley, he requested an ASL interpreter for certain activities (e.g., nightly pre-shift meetings, disciplinary meetings, trainings, company picnic) and O’Reilly refused. He requested that his supervisor send him detailed summaries of the meetings, which the supervisor did, but not consistently or comprehensively. Beasley eventually quit his job at O’Reilly and filed a claim under the ADA for failure to accommodate and constructive discharge.
O’Reilly filed for summary judgment, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama granted the motion. In dismissing the claims, the district court determined that Beasley had failed to establish a dispute of material fact that the reasonable accommodations he requested related to his essential job functions or that he had suffered an adverse employment action. According to the district court, the “mere possibility” that Beasley’s inability to understand safety and training issues could have had some negative impact on his job performance was “too speculative to constitute an adverse employment action.” Beasley appealed to the 11th Circuit.
Reversed on Appeal
The 11th Circuit concluded that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether O’Reilly’s failure to provide an interpreter or accurate summaries of meetings led to an adverse employment decision. According to the court, a jury could reasonably find that O’Reilly’s failure to provide the requested accommodation was an adverse employment decision. Perhaps Beasley would have received higher performance reviews and ratings, and therefore higher pay, if he had received an interpreter for or more complete summaries of pre-shift meetings. Similarly, a jury could find that O’Reilly’s failure to provide Beasley with an interpreter during a disciplinary dispute impacted his ability to adequately discuss and resolve the dispute, and therefore potentially adversely affected his evaluations, pay, and later disciplinary actions. In contrast, however, the court found that not providing an interpreter at a company picnic, where Beasley’s wife interpreted for him, did not result in an adverse employment action.
Circuit Court Split
The 11th Circuit’s decision that an adverse employment action is required for a failure-to-accommodate claim stands in contrast to a 2020 decision by the 10th Circuit in Exby-Stolley v. Board of County Commissioners, where the 10th Circuit noted that six circuits “either state, or strongly suggest” that there is no adverse employment action requirement in a failure-to-accommodate claim.
What This Means for Employers
The Beasley decision establishes that employees in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia must establish some type of adverse employment action to successfully bring an ADA failure-to-accommodate claim. Keep in mind that an adverse employment action may be something short of termination. So, in considering employee accommodation requests, think about whether failing to provide the accommodation could negatively impact the employee’s compensation, safety, training, or other aspects of the job.
When an employee requests a reasonable accommodation for a disability:
Engage in the interactive process with your employee, and see if you can come up with a good option. This could involve talking with the employee’s medical provider.
Think broadly. While the employee’s request is the starting point, there may be other options that fill your business needs better. With a hearing-impaired employee, can you provide an ASL interpreter? Will written instructions work? Is there a technology option that will reduce statements to writing or otherwise improve communication?
Don’t forget the Job Accommodation Network — a great, free resource on accommodating disabilities at work.
*Jordan Dyer is not a licensed attorney.