Sixth Circuit Rules That Accommodation Requests Under the ADA Can Be Inferred Without Explicit Employee Request

May 30, 2024

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, which lowered the threshold for employees to demonstrate discrimination under Title VII, the Sixth Circuit has expanded the scope of what employers should recognize as requests for accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In Yanick v The Kroger Company of Michigan, the Sixth Circuit held employers are required to draw all reasonable inferences from both the content of an employee’s statements and the context in which they are made when assessing whether a request for a reasonable accommodation has been made under the ADA.

Yanick v The Kroger Company of Michigan

Yanick managed a Kroger bakery for fifteen years, consistently meeting basic expectations. However, she began facing persistent criticism and harassment starting the same week she was (i) diagnosed with breast cancer and (ii) assigned a new supervisor. Yanick experienced frequent conflicts with her supervisor on various issues, including the types of products baked and deficiencies in the display. The supervisor held weekly meetings with Yanick to discuss these deficiencies, both in general and specifically regarding Yanick’s performance. Several discussions culminated with the supervisor suggesting that Yanick might consider stepping down. Yanick interpreted this as a recommendation for her to step down.

Shortly thereafter, Yanick took medical leave for her breast cancer and returned to work after four months with no work restrictions. Upon her return, she and her supervisor resumed their previous pattern of interactions. Within a week, Yanick was informed that she was not meeting expectations. She responded that she was “struggling” and needed additional time to acclimate to the new bakery programs. Within a month, Yanick stepped down and transferred to a different Kroger store.

EEOC Action and the Courts Ruling

Yanick filed an EEOC action and then sued Kroger in federal court for violations of the ADA, alleging: (i) discrimination, (ii) failure to accommodate, and (iii) retaliation, arguing that she was constructively demoted. The District Court granted Kroger’s summary judgment on all three claims, finding that Yanick had not made an actual request for an accommodation as her statements were too vague and not explicitly tied to a medical condition. The District Court further determined that any request made by Yanick would not have remedied a key obstacle to her ability to work, as she had no work restrictions, and was therefore deemed unreasonable.

The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that, to avoid summary judgment on her claim for failure to provide an accommodation, Yanick needed to demonstrate both that she requested an accommodation and that the requested accommodation was reasonable. The Sixth Circuit pointed out that it has historically not required a bright-line test for making a request for accommodation and that an employee need not use specific terms like “accommodation” or “I have a disability.” Instead, it has looked more to whether an employee communicated a need for an accommodation due to a disability. The Sixth Circuit further explained that context matters, and a simple communication by an employee indicating a need for an adjustment at work could be sufficient to apprise an employer that an accommodation is sought.

Yanick’s case was one such instance. Although the Sixth Circuit agreed her request was “no model for how to make an accommodation request,” it found that a plausible request was made when she said she was “struggling” and needed more time “to get used to all the work again.” Although her request was not specific, it was considered specific enough. Given the context, Kroger should have understood that such comments were a plea for a reduced work schedule. Kroger could have, and should have, reasonably inferred that her struggles were related to her disability, especially given the timing of her medical treatment. Even without physical restrictions upon her return, Yanick could still have experienced difficulties in her position.

Prior Rulings

Almost ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. finding that Abercrombie had violated Title VII when it declined to hire a female applicant who wore a headscarf, which would have violated its “no cap” policy. Without any discussion with the applicant, Abercrombie assumed the headscarf was tied to her being Muslim. Rather than discuss the matter with the applicant, Abercrombie decided not to hire her to avoid compromising its “no cap” policy due to a religious practice. The Court found that even though the applicant never requested an accommodation, Abercrombie violated Title VII by making her assumed religious practice a factor in its employment decision. The Court explained that Title VII does not impose a knowledge requirement, unlike the ADA, which does. Under the ADA, discrimination includes an employer’s failure to make “reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations” of an applicant. §12112(b)(5)(A) (emphasis added). Yanick’s case appears to conflate the standards for discrimination under Title VII and the ADA. Contrary to Muldrow, in which the U.S. Supreme Court warned against adding words to the text of Title VII, the Sixth Circuit appears to be removing words from the ADA.

Key Takeaways for Employers

Employers may find it beneficial to evaluate all available information and, if unsure, to conduct additional inquiries to ascertain whether an employee has communicated the necessity for a workplace modification due to a disability. Employers cannot rely solely on an employee filing a formal request for an accommodation. An employer is required to draw reasonable inferences from what an employee says and the circumstances in which the words are said.

The Sixth Circuit also found the unstated accommodation – inferred as an adjustment to her work schedule – to be reasonable. The key obstacle Yanick faced, inferred from her statements, was fatigue. Accordingly, a reasonable accommodation could include an adjustment to a work schedule such as part-time work or a modified work schedule, subject to a further analysis of undue hardship.

Employers are advised to proceed cautiously when faced with performance issues that coincide with an employee’s development of and/or treatment for a medical or mental health condition.

  • Examine statements made by employees who appear stressed and pay attention to the words used and the underlying circumstances to determine if any request can be inferred.
  • Do not wait to engage in the interactive process to address an accommodation until the employee uses more formalized terms.
  • Consider requesting fitness-for-duty exams based on actual job duties for employees returning from leave while being mindful that issues may still develop related to the disability.
  • Refrain from suggesting to an employee that a different position would be more suitable unless it is in the context of an interactive discussion regarding accommodations.

Employers seeking assistance in navigating this dynamic between Title VII and the ADA can contact any of our partners in our Labor & Employment Practice Group by calling 216-696-8700 or by filling our this form.