Interactive Process Not Needed Under Minnesota Law But Don’t Celebrate Just Yet

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”) does not require an employer to engage in the interactive process ­­– unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) – to determine whether an appropriate reasonable accommodation is necessary.

The Issue is Raised

As a machine operator for Team Industries, Inc., Thaleaha McBee was required to lift objects weighing more than 30 pounds.  After her doctor issued her a 10-pound lifting restriction due to a bulged disc and vertebrae problems, she met with Human Resources to discuss possible job accommodations.  The company decided instead to terminate her due to concerns relating to her medical restriction.

McBee sued for disability discrimination and failure to accommodate, among other things, under the MHRA.  The trial court granted the employer’s motion for early dismissal, prompting McBee to take the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Employee Can’t Carry Her Burden

At the outset, the Appeals Court concluded that the ability to lift more than 10 pounds was an essential function of the job.  As such, McBee was required to show that “reasonable accommodation is possible and that the accommodation will allow her to perform the essential functions of the job.”

McBee contended that the company could have accommodated her by reassigning her to a job where she would not have to lift 10 pounds or by providing assistance when such lifting was required.  The Appeals Court disagreed, noting that McBee did not establish how different jobs would have suited her restriction any better.  As for requiring others to assist in the lifting, they explained that the MHRA does not require reallocation or elimination of essential job functions as an accommodation.

The Court added that even if a reasonable accommodation was possible, the claims had to be dismissed because McBee posed a serious threat in the workplace.  Specifically, her continued employment posed a serious threat to her health or safety, and to the health and safety of others because her doctor advised that lifting more than 10 pounds could hurt her spine and cause paralysis.

State Law Lets Employee Down

McBee argued that even if these conclusions were true, the company violated the MHRA because they did not engage in an interactive process to determine the viability of her possible accommodations.  The Court found otherwise, noting that while the ADA generally requires the interactive process to evaluate reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee, the MHRA does not.  In their view, the judges believed that “because the ADA predates the MHRA, we must assume that the Minnesota legislature consciously refrained from including in the MHRA the interactive-process language from the ADA regulations.”

In addition, even though the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Minnesota) has held that the MHRA requires an employer to engage in the interactive process, the Court felt free to rule differently because “the Eighth Circuit cited federal law for this ruling based on language in the ADA, not language in the MHRA.”

Bottom Line

Despite the favorable nature of this decision, it does not have much immediate impact for Minnesota employers.  After all, both the ADA and the MHRA require employers with 15 or more employees to consider reasonable accommodation so the ADA’s obligations will apply in tandem with the MHRA in most cases.  The only time when the ADA might not apply is when the employee missed the 300-day filing period under the federal law but can still meet the one-year statute of limitations under the MHRA.

On a more hopeful note, the interactive process is not written into the statute   Instead, it is a regulation adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which has been by viewed favorably by most, but not all federal courts.  It is not mandatory for courts to follow agency regulations and some federal appeals courts have been skeptical of mandating the interactive process as a legal requirement.  Perhaps the 8th Circuit will someday be one of those courts.  Until then, however, Minnesota employers should continue to engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists.