This week’s blog entry is a twofer. In the first case, we will discuss whether magic words are necessary for getting a reasonable accommodation. In the second case, we will discuss what I believe is the long-term folly of not going the extra mile when it comes to making a place of public accommodation accessible. In each case, I have divided the discussion into different categories: facts, court’s reasoning, and takeaways. As usual, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories with respect to each case discussed.
A. Magic Words
In Cole v. Cobb County School District, a teacher basically lost it one day. As a result, the school district asked the plaintiff to meet with a prevention specialist. This led to confirmation that the plaintiff was exhibiting paranoid and irrational behavior. This then led to a fitness for duty exam that found the plaintiff was consistently harboring delusional beliefs and appeared to be confused and agitated. Further, the fitness for duty exam found she was not able to concentrate on her teaching duties and should take a medical leave to receive treatment. As a result, the plaintiff was placed on leave under the family medical leave act that day. The following day, she sent an email to the office saying that, “I need paperwork and what I need to do to move schools.” She subsequently received treatment from two doctorsfor depression and substance abuse, among other things. After being on leave for some time, she submitted a reasonable accommodation request form asking for a transfer to a new position in a different school. That request was granted and she was offered a position as a school counselor at a different school. She then underwent another fit for duty examination and eventually was confirmed as being fit for duty. She returned to work at the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic year. Her claim was that the school district should have acted sooner than it did i.e. after they received the email.
1. It is absolutely true that a plaintiff seeking a reasonable accommodation under title I of the ADA does not have to use magic words. On the other hand, the plaintiff does have to provide enough information about his or her limitations and desires so as to suggest at least the possibility that reasonable accommodation may be found (in this case with reassignment within the school district).
2. The email request was not a specific demand for reasonable accommodations. Rather, it was simply an information request asking how to go about transferring to a different school.
3. Nothing in the email request indicated that the plaintiff decided to transfer due to her disability nor did it mention a particular position she believed would be more suitable.
4. There are many reasons why a teacher may want to transfer schools aside from reasonably accommodating a disability.
Magic words are not required by the ADA when it comes to requesting a reasonable accommodation, but they sure help. So, if you are not going to use terms such as “reasonable accommodations,” and “disability,” at least use words indicating that there is something going on related to a disability (either expressly or implicitly), and that a change in the situation is needed.
B. Winning the Battle and Setting Yourself up to Lose Later
In Ramirez v. Golden Creme Donuts, the plaintiffs went after the donut shop for architectural accessibility. Once they were sued, the defendant moved to make the litigation go away by remediating the problems except for the bathroom. With respect to the bathroom, they walled off the corridor to the bathroom so that the bathroom could not be accessed by the public. The defendant then filed a motion to get rid of the claim because the plaintiffs claims had been mooted.
Since the restroom is now for employees only (a permanent wall put in place of the corridor so that no one could enter the corridor from the dining area), the restroom is no longer a place of public accommodation and therefore is not subject to the ADA.
1. An argument can be made that while the donut shop won, it will eventually lose and have to make the restroom accessible anyway because:
A. The defendants are still subject to title I of the ADA with respect to their employees.
B. Not having an accessible bathroom may mean that the defendant is violating the screen out provisions of title I of the ADA, assuming a person with a disability in need of modification to the bathroom applies.
C. should they have an employee with a disability that needs bathroom modifications, they may have to modify the bathroom anyway.
In short, a strong argument can be made that the defendant here just kicked the can down the road.