Eleventh Circuit in Owens: a roadmap for best practices concerning disability accommodation requests
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently answered the following question: ‘What information does a disabled employee need to provide her employer to trigger the employer’s duty to accommodate her disability?’ While the case decided the question under the Rehabilitation Act, the Court’s decision is also important to employers covered by Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act because the same legal standards apply to both laws.
The case – Owens v. Governor’s Off. of Student Achievement, 52 F.4th 1327 (11th Cir., Nov. 9 2022) – concerned a plaintiff who was employed by the State of Georgia in the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (“GOSA”). Following a c-section childbirth in July of 2018, plaintiff Owens informed her employer that she would need to work remotely for several months. Two notes from her doctor, mentioning the c-section, stated that Owens was “doing well” and advised that she “may” telework until November 2018. Beyond the notes, Owens informed her employer that she was seeking telework permission due to “complications” but provided no further detail concerning the complications or how teleworking would accommodate her. The employer found the information Owens provided was insufficient. The employer made repeated, documented requests asking for additional documentation, or in the alternative for Owens to return to the office. Owens did not provide further detail as requested and did not return to the office. GOSA terminated her employment. Owens subsequently sued for failure to accommodate and retaliation in violation of the Rehabilitation Act, and further alleged pregnancy discrimination. The trial court granted summary judgment for GOSA on all claims. Owens appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Court held that in order to “establish that a requested accommodation is reasonable under the Rehabilitation Act, an employee must put her employer on notice of the disability for which she seeks an accommodation and provide enough information to allow her employer to understand how the accommodation she requests would assist her.” Owens, 52 F.4th at 1330. The Court applied the holding to Owens’ case by stating “Because Owens did not identify any disability from which she suffered or give GOSA any information about how her requested accommodation—teleworking—would accommodate that disability, the district court correctly granted summary judgment.” Id. The Court further concluded that the discrimination claim failed for lack of evidence that GOSA’s proffered reasons for termination were pretextual.
The Owens decision provides a critical case study of best practices for employers when addressing requests for accommodation. Creating form requests can be a powerful way to show a Court that the employer has a procedure for promptly and effectively addressing such request. As a part of any such form, employers should ask for the following:
- A verification of the disability;
- A description of limitations caused by the disability, with a focus on the restrictions impacting an ability to complete work-related tasks; and
- Suggestions and recommendations on accommodations that would permit the requesting party to adequately complete the work-related tasks.
If confronted with a sticky or confusing case involving a request for accommodations, employers need to keep the Owens case in mind. Owens shows how policies, forms, and training can prepare a company to follow through on best practices. Moreover, the Owens case is yet another clear example of the value of documenting all communications with the requesting party. Though employer requests for additional documentation may be understandably perceived as delving into personal and sensitive issues, “[t]he Rehabilitation Act does not require employers to speculate about their employees’ accommodation needs.” Id. at 1334.