Nationwide Life Insurance Company, upon offering a new product to its clients, informed employees that they would have over a year to pass certain licensing exams. After employee Mark Jones repeatedly failed to pass the exam and just a few days before the deadline for doing so, he requested for the first time that he be given additional time beyond the deadline to successfully complete it. The employer denied the request; Jones filed a lawsuit in which he alleged disability discrimination in violation of the ADA and state law; and the District Court granted summary judgment for the employer. The First Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision and dismissed Jones’ claim.
Jones had suffered multiple injuries, loss of most of the use of one arm, underwent multiple surgeries, and was prescribed morphine and oxycodone for remaining pain. A few days before he was about to be terminated for not having passed the examination, Jones emailed his employer and requested an extension of time to complete the licensing requirement in which he stated, that his “recent medical condition and resulting treatment impacted me more than I would care to admit.” He also requested a what amounted to a six-month extension to pass the exam. The First Circuit, without deciding and simply assuming that the employee was “disabled,” held that while Jones specifically requested a extension, Jones did not link his request to his claimed disability, which an employee must do to put his employer on notice that he is in fact requesting a reasonable accommodation of a disability. Additionally, the court held that a request for an extension would not have been a request for a reasonable accommodation because it was made too close to the deadline and when termination was imminent. Jones could not demonstrate that his requested accommodation would enable him to perform the essential functions of his job and would be feasible for the employer under the circumstances. The court found that there was no reason for the employer to conclude he would pass the exam if given yet another opportunity to take it as he had failed it multiple times. Thus, it affirmed the District Court’s decision. Jones v. Nationwide Life Insurance Company, et al.,___ — F.3d —-, 2012 WL 4373690 (1st Cir. 2012).
While it seems that almost all medical conditions are “disabilities” these days, this case makes it clear that simply having a disability and making a request for a change in the workplace or terms of employment is insufficient to put the employer on notice that an employee is making a request for a reasonable accommodation within the meaning of laws requiring reasonable accommodations of disabilities. Similarly, in Aulisio v. Baystate Health Systems, Inc., No. 11-327-KPN (D. Mass. September 7. 2012), a case successfully defended by Skoler, Abbott attorney Marylou Fabbo, the Court pointed out that the Plaintiff’s various requests for additional training were not in any way linked to her hearing impairment, which resulted in them not amounting to requests for reasonable accommodation of a disability. While employers tend to err on the side of caution and grant requests that are in any way linked to a medical condition, these cases demonstrate that employers do not necessarily have to take such a conservative approach. However, because each case is fact-specific, employers should consult legal counsel before denying a request that arguably could be a request for a reasonable accommodation of a disability.