Employee's Failure to Engage in the Interactive Process Warrants Dismissal of His Disability Discrimination Suit

On August 27, 2010, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division dismissed an employee’s disability discrimination claim because the employee did not provide the employer with information needed to ascertain a reasonable accommodation, despite the employer’s repeated requests. In Cattuna v. Sara Lee Corp., No. A-0603-09T2 (8/27/2010), the plaintiff, a traveling salesperson, suffered from anxiety, depression, and panic attacks while traveling in congested public places such as bridges and tunnels. Plaintiff’s doctor certified that he was “totally incapacitated” and requested an accommodation.

Plaintiff met with the employer’s Human Resources Department, but never stated what accommodation he needed. After the meeting, Human Resources determined that plaintiff had to travel in order to fulfill his job duties and that it would be impossible to accommodate him. Plaintiff then submitted a certificate stating that he was “totally incapacitated,” but could return to work if he received an accommodation. The employer asked him to provide details around the specific accommodation he was seeking. Plaintiff responded that “unless and until you are able to provide me with a specific position, I cannot provide you with specific details around what accommodation I would need if any.” The employer asked him a third time for information about which accommodation he sought, which positions he was interested in pursuing and whether he needed an accommodation, but plaintiff never responded and filed suit instead.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint, holding that plaintiff failed to engage in the interactive process. The employer met with plaintiff, requested information about his conditions, and asked what accommodations he wanted, but plaintiff never responded specifically to these requests. The Appellate Division further noted that plaintiff was “totally incapacitated” and, consequently, could not perform his duties with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Practice Pointer: This case is a reminder that both an employer and employee must engage in the interactive process when an employee seeks a reasonable accommodation for a disability. Employers are entitled to ask employees which specific accommodations they seek and do not have to implement an accommodation through guesswork if an employee fails to supply the information the employer needs. As the Court noted, “participation in the interactive process is not a one-way street.”

For additional information on this topic, please contact Douglas S. Zucker at dsz@zuckerhatfield.com  or Kathryn V. Hatfield at kvh@zuckerhatfield.com.