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First Circuit case illustrates importance of providing information to support disability accommodation requests

The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a disability discrimination lawsuit should be dismissed because the employee who filed the case failed to provide her employer with sufficient information to support her request for a reasonable accommodation. This case illustrates one of the pitfalls that employees with disabilities face and should serve as a cautionary tale for workers with disabilities.

The employee in this case, Ms. Ortiz-Martinez, worked as a social worker for a health care service provider named Fresenius. During the course of her employment, Ortiz-Martinez suffered a hand injury and required medical leave from work while she received treatment. Eventually, her doctor cleared her to return to work while she continued to receive treatment for her injury.  Her doctor provided her with a note for Fresenius that described the injuries she suffered, which included a sprain and carpal tunnel syndrome. However, the note did not describe, with particularity, Ortiz-Martinez’s physical limitations or what accommodations she needed.

Fresenius asked Ortiz-Martinez to provide further information about how her injuries limited her physical capability so that they could determine what accommodations were necessary. Fresenius would not let her return to work until she provided it with this information. So, Ortiz-Martinez got a new note from her doctor. The new note elaborated on Ortiz-Martinez’s physical limitations but it still did not say what accommodations she needed. After several more unsuccessful attempts to get information on the accommodations that Ortiz-Martinez required, including a request made directly to her doctor, Fresenius fired her.

Ortiz-Martinez and her doctor made mistakes in this case that are not uncommon. Fresenius wanted information such as how much weight Ortiz-Martinez could lift, how often she needed rest breaks, and the repetitive movements that she needed to avoid. Even though Fresenius asked these questions directly to Ortiz-Martinez’s doctor, the doctor did not respond.

If you require a reasonable accommodation for a disability and your employer has made a reasonable request for medical information to support your request, you could easily lose your job if you do not get that information for your employer. To make sure that your doctor provides your employer with the information that the employer wants, you should make sure that the employer asks specific questions, in writing, that your doctor and you can answer. If your doctor provides a note and your employer does not think the note adequately answers the employer’s questions, you should diligently work with your doctor to get the additional information that your employer wants.

Sometimes it may seem like your employer has made unreasonable requests for information. If the requests are unreasonable, your employer might violate your rights if it fires you for failing to respond to the requests. But it is far better to have a job than to have a potential discrimination claim. So, even if you think your employer’s requests are unreasonable, you should try to comply with them unless you have a very good reason not to comply.

The Maine Employee Rights Group has decades of experience representing workers with disabilities who require reasonable accommodations. If you believe your employer has denied you a reasonable accommodation or you believe that it is about to deny you a reasonable accommodation, contact us to learn more about your rights.