Dept. Fair Empl. & Hous. v. Avis Budget Group (Reed)

Complainant Eleanor Reed was a customer service representative for Avis Budget Group (Avis) at its San Francisco Airport location. In June 2006, she requested a reasonable accommodation of a six-hour shift for her mental disability (post-traumatic stress disorder). She previously had been granted the accommodation without any problems, and had succeeded in performing her essential functions with the accommodation. Avis decided to place her on unpaid leave and thereafter requested medical documentation. Reed provided the documentation requested, including the diagnosis, the reasons for the accommodation, and why it would allow her to perform the essential functions of the job. However, she refused to agree to a blanket release of her medical records, including several years of psychiatric records that detailed decades of sexual and other physical and mental domestic abuse, or to provide unfettered access to her treating psychiatrist.

Avis decided that the doctor’s documentation was inadequate, and requested that she provide the full medical records release and access to her doctor or submit to the company’s physician for evaluation. Avis did not engage with Reed about the purported inadequacies or give her an opportunity to augment the doctor’s information to support the request for accommodation. Approximately five months after placing Reed on unpaid leave, Avis finally obtained an independent medical opinion that agreed with the opinion of her doctor. Even though it provided no further information as to the reason for the accommodation, Avis finally accepted the opinion and agreed to grant an accommodation. However, it looked at its “seasonal” need and placed Reed on a severely reduced work schedule that removed her from eligibility to bump another employee with less seniority when Avis laid off four employees, including Reed, the following month.

The Fair Employment and Housing Commission ruled in favor of the Department and against Avis for unlawful inquiries about the employee’s disabilities, failure to engage in the interactive process, denial of reasonable accommodation, and failure to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination. The Commission ordered an award of $89,863.70 ($14,863.70 in back pay and $50,000 in emotional distress damages to Reed; and $25,000 in an administrative fine to the General Fund), plus affirmative relief of postings and training for management personnel on reasonable accommodation.

Lessons to learn:

  1. Limit the medical information you request or receive to that which relates directly to the accommodation issue. Asking for anything more only invites problems.
  2. Never, ever, give up on the accommodation dialogue. Whoever quits first loses.
  3. Make sure not to “penalize” someone who has requested an accommodation.
  4. Realize that there is often “something else” going on with a person that’s none of your business! Focus on their productivity and disability, not the cause of their disability.

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