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Employer’s Refusal to Engage in Interactive Process Results in Employee Verdict

A health inspector working for Baltimore, Maryland began experiencing severe pain, reduced vision, numbness, and “brain fog.” She believed that these ailments were caused by the mold and fungus present at the courthouse where her office was located. When her department was moved to another location, her symptoms continued to worsen. She attributed the deterioration to environmental issues at the new location, including bad ventilation. Her request to change offices was rejected and after she had used up all of her FMLA leave, she felt forced to retire early. As a consequence, she lost certain pension and other related benefits.

The County did not engage in any discussions with the employee about her request for an office change. At trial, the County argued that her receipt of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) after she left showed that she could not work and was thus “unqualified” for her position under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The County used this reason to justify its failure to engage in the interactive process.

The federal trial court disagreed for two reasons. First, the employee did not receive SSDI benefits until after she left her employment and so the County could not have relied on it. Second, previous cases have held that the receipt of SSDI benefits does not conclusively show that a person was not able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without accommodation. The employee was able to explain to the jury that she would have been able to perform her job from another office. It was only after the County refused that her health deteriorated to the point where she had to retire. The jury returned a verdict in her favor for $780,000.