In Peninsula Regional Medical Center v. Tracey L. Adkins, No. 68, September Term, 2015, (Opinion by Adkins, J., May 26, 2016), (“PRMC” and “Adkins”), the Maryland Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court, (the “Court”) considered the question of an employer’s duty to reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability under Maryland law. PRMC had won a summary judgment at the trial level, persuading the lower court that it had no such duty and was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, without a trial. However, Maryland’s second highest court, the Court of Special Appeals overturned that decision and PRMC appealed to the Court.
The appeal involved an analysis of the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“FEPA”), Maryland Code (1984, 2014 Repl. Vol.), State Government Article (“SG”) § 20-601 et seq. The Court acknowledged a dearth of appellate decisions interpreting FEPA, but the federal courts had provided “substantial guidance” on the interpretation and application of federal disability legislation which could be looked to by Maryland courts.
Ms. Adkins sustained a serious hip injury, apparently unrelated to work, for which she underwent surgery. She was in much pain and during the course of her treatment was directed by her physician to maintain “sedentary” or light duty at PRMC.
The Court ruled that the definition of “qualified individual with a disability” under FEPA includes employees who could perform the essential functions of a reassignment position, with or without a reasonable accommodation, even if they cannot perform the essential functions of their current position. Ruling that PRMC was not entitled to summary judgment, the Court sent the case back to the trial level for further proceedings, which would include a trial.
In discussing Adkins’ FEPA claim, the Court cited the requirement that an employee communicate to the employer the employee’s disability and desire to receive an accommodation for the same. That, the Court ruled, is a matter of the quantity and quality of information given to the employer by the employee. No “magic words” or written communication is required to establish that communication was given by the employee.
In order to establish a case under FEPA:
- An injury must constitute a disability within the meaning of the law, which PRMC acknowledged in this case.
- The employee must communicate the disability and a desire for accommodation so that a “reasonable jury” could conclude the employer was aware of those facts. The Court found such communication present in Adkins’ case.
- And, finally, the core issue under review in Ms. Adkins’ case must be satisfied, namely, that an employer must perform an “individualized assessment” to identify a “reasonable accommodation” under FEPA to determine if a reasonable accommodation is available for the employee.
PRMC argued that under Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) § 14.03.02.04(B)(3) it had conducted such an assessment for Adkins for her current position and found she could not reasonably be accommodated by PRMC. However, Adkins successfully argued to the Court that such an assessment ought to be conducted for any reassignment position available and she had applied for three such positions.
Because PRMC failed to consider a reasonable accommodation for Adkins in the three reassignment positions, a jury could have found that PRMC failed to participate in the “interactive process” between employee and employer to identify a reasonable accommodation. Such a failure could be interpreted by a jury as a sign of “bad faith” on the part of PRMC, which would prevent it from receiving a summary judgment in the case.
The Court cited the fact that an employer’s failure to engage in the “reasonable accommodation interactive process” is not actionable as a matter of law under FEPA. However if an employee can demonstrate that he or she could have been reasonably accommodated then the failure to engage in the interactive process could give rise to a claim under FEPA. Ruling in part in favor of PRMC, the Court found that in only one of three positions for which Adkins applied could PRMC provide reasonable accommodation. On remand to the trial court the Court found that only that one position could be relied upon by Adkins in pressing her claim.
PRMC argued that it had provided additional leave time as a reasonable accommodation to Adkins. The Court stated that “…providing leave as a temporary accommodation does not permanently relieve an employer of the duty to accommodate.”
Finally, Adkins made a “disability discrimination” claim before the Court. It found that “…unlike her reasonable accommodation claim, in her disability discrimination claim, Adkins must show PRMC’s discriminatory intent…” That may be done, the Court said, through circumstantial evidence and, therefore, PRMC ought not to receive summary judgment on Adkins’ disability discrimination claim.
So, on these multiple issues, the case was returned to the trial court for development of the facts at trial. Perhaps this case is far from being over.
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