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A Holiday Gift from the First Circuit to Employers: Judgment Affirmed for Kohl’s Department Stores in Failure to Accommodate Case


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A Holiday Gift from the First Circuit to Employers: Judgment Affirmed for Kohl’s Department Stores in Failure to Accommodate Case

Kelsey Wilcox Libby

On December 19, the First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in favor of Kohl’s Department Stores in a failure to accommodate case pursued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a former employee. The case serves as a useful reminder of simple steps that businesses can take when handling accommodation requests.

Pamela Manning was a full-time sales associate at Kohl’s and suffered from Type I Diabetes. Kohl’s had restructured its staffing system in 2010, resulting in full-time associates having to work various shifts, including night, weekend, and “swing shifts” (consisting of a night shift followed by an early day shift). Manning claimed that the erratic shifts aggravated her diabetes, and her doctor sent a letter to the store requesting that Manning be scheduled to work “a predictable day shift (9a-5p or 10a-6p).” A human resources representative determined that Manning could be excused from working swing shifts, but that it was not feasible to excuse her from night and weekend shifts.  

Subsequently, the store manager met with Manning and told her that she could not provide a steady 9-5 schedule. Manning became upset, told the store manager that she was quitting, and left the meeting. On two occasions – once in the break room immediately afterward and once on the phone several days later – the store manager asked Manning to reconsider her resignation and to discuss possible “alternative accommodations.” At no point did the store manager actually tell Manning what accommodation the store could provide – e.g., excusing her from working swing shifts. 

The First Circuit affirmed judgment for Kohl’s, rejecting the EEOC’s argument that the store failed to accommodate Manning under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that it constructively discharged her. A request for an accommodation generally triggers a duty to engage in an “interactive process,” and the court stressed that both sides must participate in the dialogue. The court concluded that Kohl’s made “an earnest attempt to discuss other potential reasonable accommodations” and the employee had been responsible for the breakdown in communications. 

Here are some points that management personnel can take away from the Kohl’s case:

  • It serves as a reminder that employers do not have to grant special scheduling requests if doing so is not a reasonable option given your personnel structure.
  • If an employer does reject an accommodation request, don’t go silent. The better practice is to suggest a specific alternative to keep the interactive process alive, and to document those efforts. A little communication will go a long way, even if it is fairly open-ended.
  • The court emphasized the fact that the store manager made two attempts to engage the employee after she had quit. In fact, the “interactive process” in this case took place almost entirely after the employee quit, which helped thwart both the failure to accommodate claim and the constructive discharge claim. Employers might want to consider doing the same the next time a voluntary or involuntary termination goes awry, whether in the disability context or otherwise. 

For more information about this ruling or any other labor and employment issues, please contact Kelsey Wilcox at 207 228-7366 or kwilcox@bernsteinshur.com.