Since the COVID-19 pandemic first began, it has had a multitude of evolving impacts on the operation of the workplace.  One impact is the increased number of requests employers are receiving from employees for reasonable accommodations.  These increases are attributed to various factors, which have evolved as the pandemic has progressed.  At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the requests for reasonable accommodations arose from employees with medical conditions that placed them at higher risk if they contracted COVID-19.  With the development and approval of the COVID-19 vaccine and the establishment of COVID-19 vaccine requirements for employees, many of the requests for reasonable accommodations began to arise from employees with disabilities preventing them from being vaccinated or from employees with sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflicted with the requirement that they be vaccinated.  As California employers navigate these requests, a recent federal case provides an essential reminder for California employers.

Employers Must Engage in a Good Faith Interactive Process

In Madrigal v. Performance Transportation, LLC, the federal district court for the Northern District of California, analyzed multiple claims arising under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) that were brought by Jorge Madrigal, who worked as a driver for Performance Transportation, LLC (PTL).  The facts are as follows:

Madrigal’s essential functions as a driver included driving and delivering food items to PTL’s customers.  When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Madrigal was on a medical leave, which his doctor extended because Madrigal had diabetes, which put him at high risk for severe illness if he contracted COVID-19.  Several months later, Madrigal provided PTL with a doctor’s note stating that he could return to work if he minimized contact with other people for six to twelve months during the COVID-19 pandemic due to his high-risk status.  Madrigal requested a reasonable accommodation to that effect, and asserted he could perform the essential functions of his position with this accommodation.

Madrigal met with three PTL employees about his request for a reasonable accommodation.  During the meeting, PTL denied Madrigal’s request to work in PTL’s warehouse, as a way to minimize contact with other persons, and ended the meeting without offering Madrigal any other reasonable accommodations.  Ten days later, PTL fired Madrigal and stated that no reasonable accommodations were available for him.

Madrigal filed a complaint against PTL, which alleged a wrongful termination claim and several FEHA claims, including claims for (1) disability discrimination, (2) failure to accommodate, (3) failure to engage in a good faith interactive process, and (4) retaliation.  PTL filed a motion to dismiss each of Madrigal’s claims.  After analyzing each of Madrigal’s claims, the court granted PTL’s motion to dismiss because Madrigal’s complaint lacked sufficient information to support his claims.  However, the court gave Madrigal the opportunity to amend his complaint to provide additional supportive information.  After Madrigal amended his complaint, the court again analyzed each of Madrigal’s claims.

In reviewing the facts, the court found that Madrigal had provided sufficient facts to support each of his claims.  Importantly, the court found that Madrigal sufficiently pled his failure to accommodate and failure to engage in an interactive process claim because the facts he provided showed he made a reasonable request for accommodation, that PTL denied the request without offering any options for accommodations, that PTL made no attempt to accommodate his disability, and that there were several different accommodations available that PTL did not explore before terminating Madrigal.  Therefore, the court did not grant PTL’s motion to dismiss, and allowed Madrigal’s complaint to proceed.

The Madrigal case provides the essential reminder of an employer’s legal obligation to engage in a “timely, good faith, interactive process” with employees in response to their requests for reasonable accommodation, and an employer’s legal obligation to make reasonable efforts to identify appropriate reasonable accommodations.  The interactive process is intended to be a flexible one that involves participation by both the employer and the individual with a disability.  In most circumstances, an employer will not fulfill their obligation to engage in the interactive process if the employer does not consider whether the employee’s requested accommodation is reasonable or offer alternate accommodations that would enable the employee to perform essential job duties with or without reasonable accommodation.  While this case is still at the pleading stage, moving forward, the employer will have to demonstrate that the employee’s requested accommodation was not reasonable and that no other reasonable accommodations were available that would enable the employee to perform his or her essential job duties, including but not limited to reassigning the employee to an alternate vacant position for which the employee is qualified.