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California Court Outlines Employers' Reasonable Accommodation Requirements

  • January 9, 2001

In Jensen v. Wells Fargo Bank, the California Court of Appeal addressed an employee's claim that her employer failed to accommodate a mental disability. The employee suffered post traumatic stress disorder following an armed robbery in which a gun was held to her head. After a leave, she sought transfer to a position in which she would not have contact with the public. The bank identified some possible alternative positions, but required the employee to compete for them on a merit basis. The court found the employer's efforts at accommodation were insufficient to support summary judgment in its favor.

In its decision, the court outlined the requirements for an employer to receive summary judgment on reasonable accommodation efforts through undisputed facts that (1) reasonable accommodation was offered and refused; (2) there simply was no vacant position within the employer's organization for which the disabled employee was qualified and which the disabled employee was capable of performing with or without accommodation; or (3) the employer did everything in its power to find a reasonable accommodation, but the informal, interactive process broke down because the employee failed to engage in discussions in good faith.

Holding a job open for a disabled employee who needs time to recuperate or heal is in itself a form of reasonable accommodation and may be all that is required. However, assigning a disabled employee to a temporary position is not a reasonable accommodation since it represents, like a leave, a way to put a disabled employee on hold while the attempt to locate a regular position is on-going. When reassignment of an existing employee is the issue, the disabled employee is entitled to preferential consideration.

The Jensen decision is extremely broad. An employer's obligation to participate in the interactive process seemingly continues until the interactive process breaks down because of the employee's unwillingness to be reasonable or the employee refuses an offered reasonable accommodation. Employers are advised to document all aspects of interactive discussions with disabled employees concerning possible accommodation, particularly offers of accommodation.

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