Minnesota Court of Appeals Affirms No Affirmative Duty to Engage in Interactive Process, under MHRA

On March 10, 2015, Thaleaha McBee informed her employer of her lifting restriction due to disc narrowing, a bulged disc, and bone spurs in her vertebrae.  For one day, her employer accommodated her by placing her on a machine that produced parts weighing less than ten pounds, and she finished her shift.  McBee met with human resources to discuss possible accommodations.  The following day, she was terminated due to concerns relating to her medical restrictions.

McBee sued her former employer, Team Industries, for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA).  What may be surprising to some of us employment attorneys is in the case of McBee v. Team Industries, Inc., the  employer prevailed on a summary judgment motion after it was found McBee was not a qualified person with a disability, and no reasonable accommodation could have allowed her to continue her employment. McBee appealed, and the decision eventually made its way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The case was remanded by the Supreme Court for reasons relating to the facts in dispute, but the aspect of the decision we find most interesting is the Court’s statement that McBee’s employer was not required to engage in the accommodation interactive process.

Under the ADA, in the Eighth Circuit, and employer is required to participate in an interactive process to determine if an appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary.  For those of you who regularly receive requests for accommodation, the interactive process has become part and parcel of every legitimate request for accommodation.

However, the Court noted that nowhere in the MHRA or in any associated caselaw does the phrase “interactive process” appear.  The Court found that the “documented good faith efforts” requirement only applies to the “undue-hardship defense” described in Minn. Stat. §363A.08.  Because of this, the Court held that the MHRA does not require an employer to engage in an interactive process to determine whether reasonable accommodations can be made.

This decision departs from years of federal precedent in disability discrimination cases, some of which involved MHRA claims.  One might wonder why the plaintiff in this case chose to bring her claim only under state anti-discrimination law instead of federal, as ADA regulations make it clear the employer is required to engage in the interactive process.  Regardless, the Minnesota Supreme Court has made clear that under the MHRA as currently written, employers are not required to engage in the interactive process.

How does this affect you, going forward?  Hopefully not much.  We would encourage every employer to engage in an interactive process, and document every step of that process, to show that you have given an employee with a disability the opportunity to continue performing the essential functions of his or her job (unless, perhaps, you are a very small employer).  One of the reasons for  the ADA and the MHRA is that employers should make efforts to keep their employees working, and should not cast them aside at the first sign of disability..

The professionals at the Wiley Law Office are skilled in every step of the accommodation interactive process and can guide you through every step of an accommodation request, from receipt to termination. We also consult small employers that are subject to the requirements of the MHRA, not the ADA, and can help you defend cases similar to Team Industries.  If you need assistance in working with your employees’ restrictions, contact the Wiley Law Office, for advice that works.