NY Court of Appeals Holds That Issues of Fact as to “Reasonable Accommodation” Preclude Summary Judgment on Disability Discrimination Claims

In Jacobsen v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., 2014 N.Y. Slip Op 2098, the New York Court of Appeals recently held that summary judgment should not have been granted on plaintiff’s disability discrimination claims under the New York State and City Human Rights Laws.

The court held that “both statutes generally preclude summary judgment in favor of an employer where the employer has failed to demonstrate that it responded to a disabled employee’s request for a particular accommodation by engaging in a good faith interactive process regarding the feasability of that accommodation.”

Plaintiff worked for defendant as an assistant health facilities planner, which required him to visit construction sites. He was eventually diagnosed with a lung condition caused by repeated and prolonged inhalation of asbestos or other dust particles. Plaintiff asked defendant for accommodations in the form of protective respiratory equipment and a reassignment to defendant’s central office. Defendant eventually fired plaintiff at the end of his involuntary medical leave, after concluding that there was no position in plaintiff’s title available “that would not, of necessity, involve [his] working in conditions hazardous to [his] health”, and therefore that plaintiff was “not able to perform the essential functions of [his] job.”

Defendant was not entitled to summary judgment since it failed to carry its “burden of establishing that, as a matter of law, plaintiff did not have a statutorily covered disability for which a reasonable accommodation had been available.”

The evidence “gave rise to a logical basis on which a fact finder might conclude that HHC could have reasonably accommodated plaintiff’s need to avoid dust exposure by either providing him with a respirator or reassigning him to the central office”, which might have reduced his dust exposure to safe levels by enabling him to conduct office work and occasional site visits, during which he would have had adequate respiratory protection.”

In addition, the court held that defendant “failed to show the lack of any material issue of fact regarding its participation in a good faith interactive process”, noting that “[w]hen plaintiff asked for a respirator shortly after his return to work, HHC denied that request without considering it and instead merely provided plaintiff with a dust mask.”

The court concluded by noting that “[i]n recognizing that plaintiff presented colorable claims of disability discrimination under the City HRL and the State HRL, we do not intimate that plaintiff has a winning case for purposes of trial.” Rather, “[r]easonable minds may differ on the persuasiveness of plaintiff’s evidence with respect to the actual amount of time he would have been required to spend visiting construction sites at the central office, his ability to have performed any site visits required of him at that location, a respirator’s ability to have prevented the further exacerbation of his lung ailment, and the extent to which an interactive process would have led to the discovery of a reasonable accommodation.”