(Un)reasonable Accommodations: 3 Takeaways From the Fourth Circuit’s Tartaro-McGowan Decision

The Fourth Circuit has handed down a decision that provides helpful guidance to employers seeking to provide reasonable accommodations in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In Tartaro-McGowan v. Inova Home Health, 91 F.4th 158 (4th Cir. 2024), a nurse for a home health agency had arthritis and wanted to avoid tasks that required her to bend or put stress on her knees. She requested as an accommodation that she be exempt from caring for patients in their homes. The request was problematic for several reasons.

The biggest problem was that Tartaro-McGowan made her request during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when there were severe staffing shortages. Her employer needed all the home health nurses it could find, and reallocating her duties wasn’t an option. It also didn’t make sense to take her off the home health rotation, because there were several home health duties she could still do within her physical limitations. Plus, her employer was willing to let her screen the patients she served to ensure she wouldn’t have to bend excessively.

The Fourth Circuit ultimately found in favor of the home health agency, determining that the company offered Tartaro-McGowan a reasonable accommodation. The court’s analysis contains good lessons for employers who receive unreasonable accommodation requests, and here are three takeaways:

1. Every accommodation request must be given individualized treatment.

The Fourth Circuit emphasized that its decision was made against the backdrop of the “exceptional circumstances” of the pandemic, “coupled with the ultimate discretion that employers enjoy in selecting between potential accommodation alternatives.” The court’s repeated references to the “particular circumstances” of the case serve as a reminder that there’s no cookie cutter approach to accommodation requests.

If employers are going to ensure that they make the best judgment calls possible, they can’t rely on what they’ve done with similar requests or allow personal feelings to get involved. They need to consider the unique demands of the employee’s position, determine the precise limitations caused by the employee’s disability, and put the effort into exploring the best accommodation for that person. As the court held, “The ADA requires reasonableness, not perfection. Reasonableness does not demand that an accommodation have an airtight solution to every contingency conceivable. Its dictates are tethered to the practical realities of each case[.]”

2. An employer needs to remember that a record is being built, and its reasonableness may eventually save the day.

Something the Fourth Circuit made a point to mention was Tartaro-McGowan’s unwillingness to cooperate when her employer came up with alternative accommodations. The court explicitly noted, “Perhaps [she] would have a stronger argument had she actually given Defendants’ proposed accommodation a chance.” In that case, she might have proven that the employer’s proposal was unreasonable. Instead, she rejected its ideas and didn’t propose any of her own when invited to do so.

It’s frustrating when an employee is resistant to reasonable suggestions for accommodations, but employers should remain professional and helpful throughout the process. Remember that Tartaro-McGowan’s unreasonable responses to her employer ultimately ended up being part of the basis for the court finding in the employer’s favor. That’s why management needs to remember that its earnest and non-reactive efforts during these interactions may one day be the difference between success or failure in court.

3.The employer is in the driver’s seat (for the most part) when negotiating accommodations.

The Fourth Circuit emphasized (as it has before) that with accommodations, there are often “many possible solutions [and] . . . the employer, exercising sound judgment, possesses the ultimate discretion over these alternatives.” That is, the employee isn’t entitled to her preferred accommodation. As the court explained, “[A]s long as the employer’s chosen accommodation is reasonable, even if not perfect, our inquiry is at an end.”

Even so, declining an employee’s request can be costly in terms of the internal distraction that comes with conflict and potential litigation. No matter how confident the employer may feel about its proposed accommodation, the risks that come with rejecting an employee’s request aren’t always obvious. If there’s any lesson that comes from Tartaro-McGowan, it’s that moving forward with an accommodation plan can be tricky and is best done with the advice of counsel.

Contact Joshua Rogers or a member of the Sands Anderson Employment Team for assistance navigating ADA issues or other employment law matters.