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Legal Briefing: Cancer and Accommodations

Once an employer has knowledge of an employee’s disability, it must engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if a reasonable accommodation exists.

March 12, 2014

Michelle Suvada, a production worker at Gordon Flesch Co., was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2009. Suvada told her supervisor about her diagnosis, said she would need to take leave for medical appointments, and explained that back pain made it difficult to lift heavy objects, which might affect her co-workers. The supervisor asked about Suvada’s ability to perform her duties and asked if she was giving a two-weeks’ resignation notice. Suvada said she wanted to keep working and asked about any available jobs that would be physically less demanding. When the supervisor said she knew of none, Suvada resigned.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that Suvada’s conversation with her supervisor triggered the company’s duty under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Illinois Human Rights Act to engage in an interactive process to identify potential reasonable accommodations. The court found that material factual disputes existed regarding the supervisor’s alleged failure to direct Suvada to consult the company’s website or HR department for a list of available job openings. Suvada v. Gordon Flesch Co., N.D. Illinois, No. 11-07892 (Sept. 13, 2013).

Impact: Once an employer has knowledge of an employee’s disability, it is required to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine if a reasonable accommodation exists. These accommodation efforts will continue until the employer exhausts reasonable efforts to preserve an employee with a disability’s status.

James E. Hall, Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners in the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Los Angeles and Chicago. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.