Discrimination claims are expensive to defend and if they reach a jury, the results are often unpredictable. The summary judgment motion, when utilized properly, is an effective risk and cost containment tool available to employers attempting to fend off such claims before they reach a jury. Therefore, employers need to make sure that they do everything within their power to keep this tool available to them if a discrimination lawsuit is filed. A recent New York Court of Appeals decision, Jacobsen v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., underscores this point. In Jacobsen, the Court of Appeals held that an employer who does not participate in an interactive process regarding a disabled employee’s accommodation request is thereafter precluded from obtaining summary judgment with respect to any state or city disability discrimination claims related to that request.
Both the trial court and the Appellate Division, First Department, held that summary judgment was appropriate because in their view, on the facts of the case, there was no reasonable accommodation available that would have enabled the terminated employee to perform the essential functions of his position. However, there was one dissenting opinion in the Appellate Division’s decision. The dissenter noted, among other things, that the record lacked any evidence that the employer had engaged in a good faith interactive process to determine the existence and feasibility of a reasonable accommodation. Given such failure, the dissenter felt that summary judgment in favor of the employer was inappropriate.
The Court of Appeals concurred with that aspect of the dissenter’s opinion, and reversed the decision granting summary judgment to the employer. After examining the legislative history and intent of the statutes, particularly the provisions of the New York Human Rights Law, the Court of Appeals held that employers are required to "give individualized consideration" to a disabled employee’s accommodation request and that:
"In light of the importance of the employer’s consideration of the employee’s proposed accommodation, the employer normally cannot obtain summary judgment on a State HRL claim unless the record demonstrates that there is no triable issue of fact as to whether the employer duly considered the requested accommodation. And the employer cannot present such a record if the employer has not engaged in interactions with the employee revealing at least some deliberation upon the viability of the employee’s request."
Because of its broader coverage, the Court also held that the "City HRL unquestionably forecloses summary judgment where the employer has not engaged in a good faith interactive process regarding a specifically requested accommodation."
The Court of Appeals made clear that, despite its holding, a plaintiff’s burden at trial remains the same and that he/she still has to prove the existence of a reasonable accommodation that was requested and denied. Moreover, the Court of Appeals rejected the even harsher notion that the failure to engage in a good faith interactive process compels a grant of summary judgment or a verdict in the employee’s favor.
The lesson here is simple. Prudent employers should always at least consider a disabled employee’s accommodation request, engage in a dialogue with the employee regarding the feasibility of the accommodation request and suggest potential alternatives if the initial request is not feasible. Employers should also document their interactions with a disabled employee and the resolution of the employee’s accommodation request. That way, employers can ensure that they have a fully equipped tool belt to employ in fending off any potential disability discrimination claims.