Court of Appeal: Employee Must Initiate Interactive Process

Tanya Milan worked for the city of Holtville's water treatment plant. After a work-related injury, she began a leave of absence. During the leave, her workers' compensation doctor decided she would not be able to perform her duties. She never requested an accommodation or contacted her employer to state her intention to return to work. Instead, she accepted retraining benefits from the city's workers' compensation administrator and began taking courses for a new career.

The trial court awarded damages. The court felt that when the employee's doctor opined she was unable to do her job, that triggered the city's obligation to accommodate her.

However, on appeal, the court reversed. The court noted that the claim for failure to participate in an interactive process requires the employee to initiate the process:

Section 12940, subdivision (n), requires that an employer "engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with the employee or applicant to determine effective reasonable accommodations, if any, in response to a request for reasonable accommodation by an employee or applicant with a known physical or mental disability or known medical condition." (Italics added.)

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Importantly, by its terms section 12940 subdivision (n) requires that the employee initiate the process. (Gelfo v. Lockheed Martin Corp., supra, 140 Cal.App.4th at p. 62, fn. 22.) On the other hand, "no magic words are necessary, and the obligation arises once the employer becomes aware of the need to consider an accommodation. Each party must participate in good faith, undertake reasonable efforts to communicate its concerns, and make available to the other information which is available, or more accessible, to one party. Liability hinges on the objective circumstances surrounding the parties' breakdown in communication, and responsibility for the breakdown lies with the party who fails to participate in good faith."

Here is the money quote:

In short, where, as here, an employer has not received any communication from an employee over a lengthy period of time, and after the employee has been given notice of the employer's determination the employee is not fit, an employer is not required by section 12940, subdivision (n), to initiate any discussion of accommodations. Imposition of such a duty under those circumstances would contradict the express terms of the statute which requires that the employee initiate the interactive process.

Although this case does not require it, from a preventive standpoint, it is important to document attempts to check in with employees on long term leave. Employers should also ensure it has policies requiring employees to communicate periodically regarding their status and intentions. By doing so, that bolsters the argument that the employee's failure to communicate demonstrates a lack of intention to engage in an interactive process or request accommodation.

The case is Milan v. City of Holtville and the opinion is here.