Court Holds Employer Not Required to Grant Disabled Employee His Preferred Accomodation

Bernadette Hunton
Bernadette Hunton

Most employers are well aware of their duty to offer a disabled employee reasonable accommodations upon request, but what’s an employer obligated to do when a proposed accommodation is rejected and the employee demands something different? Nothing, said the court in Noll v. Int’l Bus. Machs. Corp., No. 13-4096 (2d Cir. 5/21/15), so long as the offer of accommodations is “effective.”

In this case, Plaintiff Noll, a deaf software engineer, sued his employer, IBM, for failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it refused to offer real-time translation services for intranet files as an accommodation for his disability. IBM instead provided Noll with on-site and remote sign language interpreters who could translate the files for him. According to Noll, he disliked using the interpreters for videos because the looking back and forth between the video and the interpreter was a “confusing and tiring” process.

The court was not sympathetic. In a 2-1 decision, the majority explained that the key inquiry in this type of case, is whether the proposed accommodation is “effective.” Particularly since Noll conceded that the interpreters were effective for in-person meetings, the court refused to find that the same accommodation was ineffective in a different context. “Noll’s sole objection– that he had to look back and forth between an interpreter and his screen– did not, without more, make that accommodation unreasonable,” the court held.

The court also rejected Noll’s claim that IBM failed to engage in the interactive process to explore reasonable accommodations, concluding that “the ADA imposes no liability for an employer’s failure to explore alternative accommodations when the accommodations provided to the employee were plainly reasonable.” Because the interpreters were “plainly reasonable,” the court held, IBM had no duty to engage in the interactive process.

According to the court’s sole dissenter, however, the case should have gone to trial. “In light of Noll’s declaration [that having an interpreter for intranet videos was not effective for him],” he wrote, “whether the accommodation IBM offered is reasonable and effective is a question of fact at a trial- not for the district court on motion for summary judgment, or for us on appeal.”

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