Minnesota Court of Appeals Says Employers Need Not Engage in “Interactive Process” with Disabled Employees Under the MHRA

Submitted by HKM Profession… on Wed, 03/14/2018 - 20:45

Brandon Glanz By Brandon Glanz

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in a recent failure-to-accommodate case that, unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) does not require employers to engage in the "interactive process" with disabled employees to determine if an appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary.  In so holding, the court in McBee v. Team Industries, Inc.1 broke from interpretations made by the Eighth Circuit, which has held that the MHRA does require employers to engage in the interactive process.

The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified person.  The MHRA is no different.  There is one key distinction, however, between ADA regulations and the MHRA.  Federal regulations state that, to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation, it may be necessary for an employer to initiate an informal, interactive process with an individual with a disability to survey possible reasonable accommodations.  There is no corollary provision under the MHRA.  Likewise, leading up to McBee, there was no published case from a Minnesota state court interpreting the MHRA to require employers to engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee.  As such, though the MHRA largely parallels the ADA, the court in McBee ruled that the MHRA does not require an employer to engage in an interactive process to determine an appropriate reasonable accommodation.2

The McBee ruling does not mean, however, that employers need not make accommodation decisions in good faith under the MHRA.  In McBee, the district court granted the employer's summary judgment motion because, in part, the plaintiff was not qualified to perform an essential function of her job.  A failure to accommodation claim under the MHRA requires that the employee establish that she is able to perform the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodations.  Plaintiff McBee worked as a machine operator in the defendant's production department.  Machine operators were required to be able to move heavy metal parts and lift objects weighing 30 pounds or more.  In 2015, McBee's doctors imposed on her a ten-pound lifting restriction due to disc narrowing, a bulged disc, and bone spurs in her vertebrae.  Days after informing her employer of her lifting restriction, McBee was terminated due to concerns relating to her medical restriction.

McBee contended in the lawsuit that her employer in fact could have reasonably accommodated her by either assigning her to a different machine, allowing her to lift less than ten pounds, or providing assistance when she needed to lift more than ten pounds.  When determining whether a job duty is an essential function, courts review the following factors: (1) the employer's judgment as to which functions are essential; (2) written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; (3) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (4) the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; and (5) the current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs. 

McBee contended that she very infrequently found herself actually lifting more than ten pounds in her position.  The court found this fact of little consequence since her employer regarding lifting more than ten pounds as an essential function for its machine operators.  The facts also established that other positions similarly would have required lifting ten pounds, thus assignment to a different machine would have created the same difficulties.  Because the law does not require employers to reallocate or eliminate essential job functions in order to accommodate an employee with a disability, the Court ultimately concluded that McBee's proposed accommodations would not have been reasonable and affirmed the district court's decision.

If you have any questions regarding this recent activity or Minnesota employment law, please contact one of the attorneys in HKM's Employment Litigation Group at (651) 227-9411.

1 906 N.W.2d 880 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018).

2 As a practical note, the MHRA applies to all employers who employ at least 1 employee in Minnesota, whereas the ADA and its interactive process requirement applies to employers with 15 or more employees.