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"Magic Words" Not Needed to Trigger ADA Obligations

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Kansas) recently reiterated the rule that employees do not need to use “magic words” to request a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

This case involved a garbage truck driver named Roy Mestas who worked for the town of Evansville, Wyoming. Mestas slipped on the ice while working, hurt his back, and was on medical leave for six weeks. Mestas claimed that when he returned, his bosses treated him worse than his co-workers because they were upset with him for getting hurt and missing so much work.  
One day, when he was assigned to remove snow, Mestas asked his boss if he could use his own snowblower to assist with the task, which he thought would help with his back pain. The boss denied this request. The next day, Mestas asked his supervisor to be excused from shoveling snow because he reinjured his back, but the boss just hung up in response. Mestas alleged that when he called back, his supervisor said he “didn’t want to hear [his] sh**.”
Mestas said that when he returned to work a week later, his supervisor fired him because “things were not working out,” and told him to go “take care of [his] back and whatever.”
Mestas sued under the ADA. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit found that he had raised a triable issue of fact about whether he had engaged in protected activity under the ADA. Specifically, he took a six-week medical leave, he needed additional time off for a steroid injection, he requested to use his snow blower, and he requested to be excused from shoveling snow.
The court reminded employers they do not need to wait to hear any magic words before engaging in the interactive process and considering a reasonable accommodation for a worker with a disability: “There is no requirement that an employee use ‘magic words’ like ‘ADA’ or ’reasonable accommodation’ when making a request; the employee must only make clear that the employee wants assistance for his or her disability.” Mestas v. Town of Evansville, No. 17-8092, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 26920 (10th Cir. Sep. 6, 2019).
In other words, the law does not require employees to know or implement any specific words to make a reasonable accommodation request. The employer just needs to have enough information to know the employee might need an accommodation. Here, Mestas’s supervisor knew of his injury, knew he was in pain, and knew he wanted help to alleviate the pain. That was enough to trigger the employer’s ADA’s requirements.
Make sure your managers know how to “issue spot” reasonable accommodation situations and that they should engage HR when such situations arise. Managers should know that, while calling in “sick” might not be enough information to engage in an interactive dialogue about a reasonable accommodation, complaints of pain associated with work tasks and the need for leave may trigger ADA protection.

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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
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Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
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Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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