Can I Reject a Job Transfer as an Unreasonable Accommodation Under Disability Law?

Disability discrimination occurs under New York State law whenever an employer fails to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to an employee with a qualifying physical or mental impairment. If there is a disagreement between the employer and the employee over the reasonableness of a specific requested accommodation, the parties are expected to engage in a “good faith interactive process” to resolve the issue. This must be a two-way process: If the employee fails to provide the employer with appropriate information related to his or her accommodation request, a judge may deem that sufficient grounds for rejecting a disability discrimination claim.

Court Says Employee's Misstatements Negated Employer's Duty to Accommodate Disability

Consider this recent decision by the Appellate Division, Third Department, in upstate New York. The plaintiff in this case suffers from spinal stenosis and Tourette's syndrome. He worked at a psychiatric hospital owned by the state Department of Mental Health.

After the plaintiff received multiple poor performance evaluations while working in the hospital's admission unit, management transferred him to the geriatric unit. The plaintiff refused the transfer, arguing it was not an “appropriate work environment” for him given his disabilities. More precisely, he claimed that working in geriatrics would lead to an “increase in the severity and frequency” of neurological tics associated with his Tourette's syndrome.

Through his employment attorney, the plaintiff requested a “reasonable accommodation” by transferring him back to his previous unit or a similar department that was “less stressful and physically strenuous.” Instead of granting this request, the hospital ended up firing the plaintiff after discovering that he failed to disclose his employment–and termination–from another state-owned mental health facility. Management said it was policy to fire an employee who provided “false information” during the hiring process.

The plaintiff subsequently sued under New York State's disability discrimination law. Both the trial court and the Third Department rejected the plaintiff's claims. First and foremost, the Third Department noted, it was the plaintiff–not the hospital–who failed to engage in the interactive process. Specifically, the plaintiff never identified “the specific work” associated with the proposed geriatrics reassignment that he could not perform “due to his medical limitations.” This failure to answer the hospital's requests rendered the plaintiff's request for accommodation “unreasonable” under the circumstances.

Furthermore, even if the plaintiff had provided that information, the hospital was still justified in firing him because of his failure to disclose his prior employment. This was not, as the plaintiff described it, illegal “retaliation” for asserting his rights under the anti-discrimination laws, but rather a “legitimate, independent and nondiscriminatory” reason for the hospital's decision. The hospital said hiring a person who had been previously terminated by another facility placed patients “at risk,” and the Third Department accepted that explanation.

Get Advice on Your Disability Accommodation Claim

All public and private employers must be aware of their obligations to reasonably accommodate disabled employees. Every disability scenario is also unique, and what is “reasonable” for one employee may not be for another. This is why, if you are the employee seeking an accommodation, you need to engage the process as soon as possible. Your first step should be to speak with a qualified New York employment attorney. Call the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar at (800) 496-3076 if you need help today.