- A district court improperly dismissed a nurse's claims that her employer failed to accommodate her anxiety, which prevented her from meeting the company's vaccine requirements, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, Mount Nittany Health System d/b/a Mount Nittany Health, No. 17-2227 (June 5, 2018)).
- Aleka Ruggiero was fired by Mount Nittany Medical Center for failing to get vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Ruggiero requested an exemption for her anxiety and suggested that she be allowed to wear a mask, an accommodation she said other nurses were granted. The lower court dismissed the lawsuit, saying they employer had met its responsibilities under the law when it said it would exempt her from the vaccination requirement if she met any of the precautions identified by the vaccine’s manufacturer.
- On appeal, however, the 3rd Circuit said that Ruggiero's allegations "plausibly suggest that MNMC prematurely ceased the interactive process and barred Ruggiero from the individualized inquiry to which she was entitled under the ADA."
Discrimination under the ADA includes the failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee's disability. Employers are expected to engage in an interactive, good-faith process to find accommodations. Failure to do so isn't a per se violation of the law, but can serve as evidence of discrimination.
An employer can show its good faith in many ways, the 3rd Circuit noted, such as meeting with the employee; requesting information about the employee’s conditions and limitations; asking the employee what accommodation she wants; showing some signs of having considered her request and offering and discussing available alternatives when the request is too burdensome.
The employer in this case knew about the plaintiff's alleged disability and her desire for accommodation – either an exemption from the vaccine requirement and/or permission to wear a mask – but both were rejected with no alternative proposed. This is where a good-faith interactive process could have shown that the employee received the individualized inquiry to which she was entitled, the court explained.
Employers can be liable for failing to provide an accommodation if they knew or should have known that an employee needed something, so HR may want to train managers to listen for things that might not seem like an obvious request.