Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Case Study: Court Razes Architect’s Failure-to-Accommodate Suit

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently upheld a trial court’s dismissal of an employee’s claim that his employer failed to accommodate his disability, holding that Georgia state law provided him no legal remedy.

Facts

In 2016, Lindsay Pope Brayfield & Associates, Inc. (LPB)—a Lawrenceville, Georgia, architectural firm—hired Gary Johnson, a licensed architect. At the time of hire, he made LPB aware he suffered from hearing loss and tinnitus.

In 2017, Johnson acquired hearing aids, which picked up both nearby sound and distant ambient noise but couldn’t be adjusted for frequency or volume. Without his hearing aids, he could converse with coworkers only by reading lips.

For several months without incident, Johnson’s worked on LPB’s third floor, next to his coworker Jim Lord, both of whom reported to company president Winford Lindsay. In November 2017, Lindsay advised Johnson that Lord had complained he generated too much “noise” and had thus asked for a workspace relocation.

Addressing Lord’s complaint, Lindsay asked Johnson to “cut back” on his noisemaking and avoid speaking loudly, suggesting his loudness was attributable to his hearing aids. Two days later, Lindsay told Johnson that because of a “reorganization,” he should consider moving to another workstation on LPB’s first floor.

Upon visiting the first floor, Johnson expressed concern that it featured a glass wall, exposed metal and ductwork, and wood and ceramic floors and lacked acoustic panels, rugs, or carpets. He identified additional sources of noise, including street traffic, an adjacent elevator, two nearby restrooms, and frequent deliveries and visitors. One employee described the first floor as being “much louder” than the third and “a distracting place to work,” opining that Johnson likely couldn’t tune out the noise or perform his job efficiently in that environment. Given his concerns, Johnson informed Lindsay he couldn’t work on the first floor because of the noise, and thus he continued working on the third floor.

In December 2018, Lindsay again proposed that Johnson relocate his workstation to the first floor, but Johnson nevertheless sought to remain on the third floor. Believing him to be “grumbling” over his new workspace, two days later Lindsay dispatched another manager to move Johnson’s personal items to the first floor.

When Johnson discovered his items had been moved, he returned to the first floor, shouted at the manager (who was still in the process of moving Johnson’s belongings), and proclaimed he was going to resign and was “done working here.” Shortly thereafter, he calmed down, apologized to the manager, and asked for more boxes.

Upon learning of Johnson’s outburst, however, Lindsay immediately reported to senior management that Johnson was “quitting” (with some apparent jubilation), directed the IT manager to “unplug [Johnson] ASAP,” and proclaimed that if he rescinded his resignation, he would nevertheless be “fired for cause.” Lindsay then informed Johnson LPB had accepted his resignation.

Legal Analysis

After his separation, Johnson filed suit against LPB in Georgia state court, claiming it had failed to accommodate his disability in violation of Georgia’s Equal Employment for Persons with Disabilities Code, a seldom-cited and poorly worded 40-year-old statute. The court dismissed his claim without a trial on the grounds that the code doesn’t require an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability. Rather, the code’s express language merely requires that an employer not discriminate against, limit, segregate, or classify a disabled employee in a way that would deprive the individual of employment opportunities.

Johnson appealed the trial court’s decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which observed that, while federal law—specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability, the code simply does not. Rather, the Georgia code prohibits only disability discrimination. By that interpretation, the court held LPB had no legal responsibility to accommodate Johnson’s request that he not be reassigned to the first floor. As a result, he had no actionable claim for failure to accommodate, and thus the court upheld dismissal of his case.

Dissent Suggests Decision Not So Clear-Cut

But, is it really so clear? As one dissenting justice concluded, an employer’s refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation is “inherently discriminatory” and thus violates the code, further explaining that Johnson’s repeated complaints he was unable to work effectively on the first floor (where he was knowingly set up to fail) and his simple request to remain on the third floor (where he had long successfully performed his job) “was neither onerous nor burdensome” and had cost LPB nothing.

Pointing out that Johnson had never refused to work nor had he ever notified his supervisor of any intention to quit, the judge was convinced LPB’s response to his request for an accommodation was “as callous as it was deliberate” and the “abject unfairness is the essence of disability discrimination.” In opposition to the court’s majority, the dissenting jurist argued an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation is “impliedly embedded in the Code.”

Both interpretations of the code are important. If Johnson had alleged instead that LPB discriminated against him because of his disability, his claim would likely have survived pretrial dismissal. Likewise, if he had invoked the federal ADA, instead of resting his case on the Georgia code, he could have asserted both disability discrimination and failure to accommodate and conceivably survived dismissal of both claims.

Indeed, the prevailing facts reveal some managerial animosity and frustration toward Johnson, in part because of his demeanor and noisemaking, but equally in part because of his repeated requests for reassignment. The facts further raise the questions of whether LPB terminated him because of his disability or at least in retaliation for his complaints about his workspace. And the facts are equally unclear whether LPB actually provided him with a reasonable accommodation in the first place.

These academic, postgame considerations naturally lead to the conclusion that this case could have gone very differently had Johnson instead alleged state and federal disability discrimination claims and a federal failure-to-accommodate claim. Further, it begs the question of whether the code will ultimately be expanded to include accommodation obligations.

Takeaway

Since LPB won the case, namely on technical as opposed to factual grounds, astute employers should remain mindful that under both Georgia state and federal law, it’s unlawful to take adverse action against an employee because of his disability. Under federal law, you are also obligated to provide a disabled employee with a reasonable accommodation. And as interpreted by at least one appellate judge, Georgia law implicitly requires you to accommodate an employee’s disability.

In difficult workplace disability cases, your communications, efforts, and motives will invariably be scrutinized against the backdrop of a disabled employee’s limitations, medical requirements, and cooperative spirit. Despite best efforts, perception often becomes reality, with misunderstandings, stray comments, and hurt feelings laying the foundation for vexing disability discrimination, retaliation, and failure-to-accommodate claims. As this case reminds us, you should be particularly patient and facilitative toward disabled employees who request workplace accommodations, maintaining an interactive dialogue, and refrain from rushing to judgment. For behind the lines support in close cases like these, consult your favorite HR lawyer—a seven-minute call may avert a seven-figure lawsuit.

Chris Butler is an employment lawyer with Christopher Butler LLC in Atlanta and may be reached at cbutlerlaw@outlook.com.