Many employers are well-acquainted with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the laws that they must comply with to protect their employees and prevent discrimination in the workplace. One of the most prominent aspects of the ADA that impacts employers and HR professionals is Title I, which prohibits private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions from discriminating against qualified applicant or current employee with disabilities for any employment opportunity. Employers are required to provide medical accommodations for their employees within their work environment which will address the medical needs of an employee with a disability. This allows a qualified employee to successfully fulfil the essential functions of that position or enjoy benefits and privileges of employment, just as any other employee would.

What is a Medical Accommodation?

Medical accommodations or ‘reasonable accommodations’ are modifications made by employers to at the request of individuals with disabilities to help them perform their job duties effectively. These reasonable accommodations are designed to create a supportive work environment that ensures equal opportunities for success among qualified employees or applicants with disabilities.

Common Examples of Reasonable Accommodations

Primarily, the medical accommodation process is an interactive process that require employers and employees engage in an ongoing dialogue to find effective accommodations. These are just a few examples of reasonable workplace accommodations that can be made to address an employee’s medical need:

  • Work Schedule Modification: This involves changing a person’s work schedule to allow for more flexible hours or allowing them to telecommute
  • Physical Modification: Adjusting the work environment, such as ramps, accessible restrooms, modified workstations
  • Equipment Provision: Providing ergonomic furniture and assistive technology like screen readers
  • Job Restructuring: Reassigning non-essential tasks and/or redistributing of duties among team members
  • Policy Adjustments: Modifying workplace policies that may accidentally exclude employees with disabilities, such as allowing service animals within the office
  • Leave of Absence: Providing extended medical leave beyond standard sick policies or intermittent leave for ongoing treatment

A new ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on April 29th of this year provides employers further insights into how courts are viewing an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee with a medical condition.

Yanick v. The Kroger Company of Michigan

In Yanick v. The Kroger Company of Michigan, Case No. 23-1439 (April 29, 2024), Mary Ellen Yanick was employed in a Kroger bakery for more than fifteen years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Upon learning her diagnosis, she informed one of her supervisors. During her employment with Kroger, Yanick received mostly positive performance evaluations. However, Yanick claimed that after she informed her supervisor of her medical condition, she was subjected to excessive criticism regarding her job performance and harassment.

Prior to going out on medical leave to address her cancer diagnosis, Yanick’s supervisor met with her and during that meeting he recommended that she step down from her managerial role. Yanick then went out on medical leave for four months and returned to work with doctor’s approval and no restrictions.

During Yanick’s initial week back to work from medical leave, Yanick’s supervisor met with her and asked her how things were going. Instead of waiting and listening to Yanick’s response, the supervisor immediately started criticizing her performance and harassing her like he had been doing prior to Yanick going out on medical leave. At this meeting, the supervisor continued to push her about her performance and also reminded her that if she did not perform better she could be subject to discipline up to, and including termination. The supervisor again reminded Yanick that she could step down as manager of the bakery. Approximately two weeks after this meeting, Yanick did in fact step down, and transferred to another Kroger store. After Yanick transferred, she then filed a disability discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Yanick filed numerous claims in court against Kroger after receiving a Right to Sue letter from the EEOC. These claims included disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and retaliation. The lower court granted summary judgment for Kroger finding that Yanick could not demonstrate that she requested job accommodations nor that she suffered an adverse employment action.

However, the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court decision focusing on the issue of whether Yanick did in fact request accommodation. The Sixth Circuit held that Yanick did present evidence to support that she requested a medical accommodation and found that because there is no bright line rule regarding whether an employee has requested an accommodation, an employer has the obligation, in good faith, to “draw reasonable inference from what the employee says, bearing in mind the statements’ context.” Finding adequate accommodations are not a one-size fits all process, it is an interactive process that requires an individualized assessment.

The evidence that the Court found to support the holding that Yanick did request a reasonable accommodation was that Yanick shared that she had worked fifty-three hours in her first week back at work from medical leave. She was struggling as a result and Yanick stated that she needed some time to get back to normal. The court held that these statements could be reasonably viewed as a requesting a medical accommodation for a reduced work schedule.

The court did note that Yanick stating that she wanted to be “badgered less by her supervisor” did not establish a legitimate request for an accommodation though. In relation to this, the court noted that, “The ADA doesn’t impose a general duty on employers to be nice. Instead, employers need only provide accommodations addressing ‘a key obstacle’ presented by an employee’s disability.” The court determined that Yanick’s comments, combined with the cancer diagnosis and treatment, was sufficient information for the employer to recognize it to be a request for accommodation.

Kroger did challenge the court by arguing that Yanick returned to work without any restrictions or initial requests for accommodation by her doctor. The court rejected this argument and determined that while Kroger could initially rely on the doctor’s note when Yanick returned to work, the employer still had an obligation to provide an accommodation when it became clear that Yanick was struggling based on her comments during the meeting. It was further noted by the court that Yanick’s comments were sufficiently related to her medical condition to be deemed a request for a medical accommodation since the comments were made approximately a week after she returned from her four month long medical leave for cancer treatment.

What Can Employers Learn from this Ruling?

This is a good case for employers to learn from as it can be easy for employers to become frustrated with employee that they feel are not meeting performance expectations and who want to take a strong approach to managing an employee’s poor performance. However, this can backfire, particularly when the employee does not have a history of poor performance and they are experiencing personal medical issues.

Employer Responsibilities in Granting Medical Accommodations

It is important to know what your responsibilities and obligations you, as an employer, have to your employees when providing accommodations. Here are a few key things to note:

  • Non-Discrimination: Employers cannot discriminate against employees with disabilities and must provide a reasonable medical accommodation unless doing so would cause undue hardship.
  • Confidentiality: Employers must keep medical and other sensitive information confidential.
  • Interactive Process: Employers must actively participate in the interactive process to identify suitable accommodations.
  • Undue Hardship: Employers are not required to provide accommodations that would cause significant difficulty or expense relative to the size and resources of the employer.

How Employers Can Grant Medical Accommodations to Prevent Disability Discrimination

It is clear by this ruling and others, that courts and state agencies are sympathetic to an employee’s plight and will try to protect employees from an employer’s negative treatment. When conducting performance management, especially when an employer is aware that they are dealing with an employee who has a medical condition, but also has a history of good performance, the employer needs to listen to the employee’s responses to performance concerns and treat them as a request for a reasonable medical accommodation and begin the reasonable accommodation process.