EEOC v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores

In a case emphasizing the importance of acting in good faith in the interactive process and how an employer can do it right, on February 13, 2015, the First Circuit denied the EEOC’s petition for a rehearing en banc of the court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit brought against Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc. by a diabetic former employee who claimed that her erratic working hours were exacerbating her condition.  EEOC v. Kohl’s Dep’t Stores, Inc., 774 F.3d 127 (1st Cir. 2014), reh’g en banc denied (Feb. 13, 2015).

Pamela Manning, a former sales associate at Kohl’s, had type I diabetes.  For two years, she worked predictable shifts as a full-time sales associate.  Following a restructuring of the staffing system nationwide in January 2010, however, Manning began working a schedule with unpredictable shifts, including some night shifts followed by day shifts (in Kohl’s parlance, “swing shifts”).  Manning alleged that the new schedule aggravated her diabetes.

After informing her supervisor that working erratic shifts was endangering her health, Manning obtained a doctor’s note requesting that she be scheduled to work “a predictable day shift.”  Manning’s store manager contacted human resources to discuss Manning’s request.  Kohl’s determined that it could not provide Manning’s preferred schedule of day-time hours only, but authorized the store manager to offer a schedule with no swing shifts.

On March 31, 2010, during a meeting with her store manager and immediate supervisor, Manning again requested a “steady shift” with mid-day hours, but was told that she could not be given a consistent schedule.  Manning stormed out of the meeting, saying that she had no choice but to quit.  Her supervisor followed her and asked what she could do to help, but she could not convince Manning to reconsider her resignation or to discuss any alternative accommodations.

Two days later, Manning contacted the EEOC to file a charge of discrimination.  On April 9, 2010, the store manager called Manning and asked that she rethink her resignation and consider alternative accommodations for both part-time and full-time work.  Manning ignored this overture and got off the phone as quickly as possible.  A week later, after hearing nothing further Manning, Kohl’s treated her departure as voluntary and terminated her employment.

Based on this record, on December 19, 2014, the First Circuit concluded that Kohl’s made earnest attempts to discuss potential reasonable accommodations.  By contrast, Manning’s conduct constituted a refusal to participate in the interactive process in good faith, warranting summary judgment in favor of Kohl’s.  In addition, the First Circuit ruled against the EEOC on Manning’s constructive discharge claim, finding that a reasonable person would not have felt compelled to resign when her employer offered to discuss other potential work arrangements with her.

In reaching its decision, the First Circuit emphasized that both the employer and the employee have a duty to engage in good faith, and that empty gestures by the employer will not satisfy this duty.  But if an employer does engage in the interactive process in good faith, and the employee refuses or fails to cooperate in the process, the employer cannot be held liable for a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.

Employers addressing reasonable accommodation requests from their employees can learn from Kohl’s actions in this case.  Kohl’s benefited from its representatives’ diligence in documenting their response to Manning’s request (including the internal discussions) and in following up with Manning to give her an opportunity to propose alternative accommodations for her diabetes.  Thus, even though the store manager never conveyed an offer of “no swing shifts,” the First Circuit was able to find that Kohl’s made real efforts to work with Manning and that Manning unreasonably refused to continue the dialogue with Kohl’s.  And Kohl’s succeeded in winning dismissal of the ADA claim.  Employers who follow this course of conduct ensure their compliance with the ADA and, in the event an employee refuses to reciprocate discussions, may establish a defense to liability in a failure to accommodate lawsuit.