Responding to Mental Health Accommodation Requests

6 min

Many employers have experienced an increase in employee requests for accommodations in the past few years. A federal jury’s recent award in Lisa Menninger v. PPD Development L.P. reminds employers that accommodation requests, particularly those requested for mental health issues, should be handled carefully, or employers could risk paying millions for failing to accommodate such requests.


In Menninger, an executive at a lab services company was told that her job duties would be changed to include increased social interactions, presentations, and client visits. After learning of this expansion of her in-person job duties, the employee informed her employer, for the first time, that she had an anxiety disorder. She submitted documentation from her healthcare provider that indicated the changes to her duties would trigger her anxiety, making it extremely difficult for her to perform her job.

In response, the employer commenced the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation existed that would allow the employee to perform the essential functions of her job. The employer and employee engaged in an extensive interactive process, which included the employer placing the expanded job duties into five categories to assist the employee and her healthcare provider in identifying potential accommodations. After reviewing her healthcare provider’s suggested accommodations, the employer granted accommodations requested for two of the five categories, but denied the accommodations requested for the remaining three categories on the basis that the accommodations requested would involve the elimination of functions that were essential to the employee’s job. Specifically, the employee’s proposed accommodations would result in the employee not attending in-person business meetings or making in-person presentations; instead, the employee would participate and/or provide support through a surrogate, videoconferencing, and/or electronic communications. Despite the employer’s request, the employee did not propose alternative accommodations for these three categories, but instead, responded that there were many tasks within those categories that she could perform without implicating her disability. The employer responded that it was unreasonable to eliminate the “core requirements” of attending in-person business meetings and dinners.

Two months later, the employee requested medical leave, which the employer granted. After eight months of leave and no clear indication of when the employee would be able to return to work, the employer terminated the employee. The employee sued the employer for disability discrimination.

The court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment, holding that it was a question for the jury as to whether the full extent to which the employee was expected to perform her in-person duties (i.e., the increased frequency of the duties) was essential to the job functions. The jury found that the employer discriminated against the employee by failing to provide her with reasonable accommodations and by taking an adverse employment action against her. In addition, the jury found that the employer unlawfully retaliated against the employee. The jury awarded the employee $24 million, an award that consisted of back pay, front pay, emotional distress damages, and punitive damages.

Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities to allow them to perform the essential functions of their job. Essential job functions are fundamental job duties that cannot be modified without changing the nature of the job. A function may be essential if there is a limited number of employees who can perform it, or if it is highly specialized such that the employee was hired as a result of their expertise to perform the function. In assessing whether a job function is essential, factors that should be considered include the employer’s judgment, the written job description, the amount of time spent performing the function, the consequences of the employee not performing the job, and whether there are other employees who hold similar jobs.

Employers must engage in the interactive process with an employee who requests an accommodation to determine whether a reasonable accommodation exists. The interactive process includes communications between the employer and the employee through which the employer may obtain certain information regarding the employee’s disability, including the limitations that may affect the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions and how such limitations may be overcome by a reasonable accommodation. Employers should give primary consideration to the employee’s proposed accommodations but are not required to provide the specific accommodation requested by the employee. If a reasonable accommodation exists, the employer must implement the accommodation unless doing so would be significantly difficult or expensive for the employer.

Best Practices for Employers

  • Maintain Detailed Job Descriptions: Job descriptions will be used to determine whether a function is essential to a position. As such, employers should ensure that job descriptions clearly outline the fundamental job duties as well as the amount or frequency with which those duties must be performed. For instance, a job description may provide that an essential function of the position is biweekly business travel and a minimum of 50% of the employee’s work time.

  • Respond Promptly: An employer’s unnecessary delay in responding to a request for an accommodation may constitute a violation under the ADA. Although the ADA does not provide a specific amount of time in which employers must respond to an accommodation request, it is recommended that employers respond substantively as soon as possible.

  • Engage in the Interactive Process: No accommodation request should be automatically dismissed or ignored. Employers should engage in the interactive process and have a back-and-forth dialogue with the employee to better understand the employee’s request and to determine if a reasonable accommodation can be granted.

  • Document the Interactive Process: An employer’s documentation can be vital in defending an ADA claim. Employers should thoroughly document the interactive process, including the reasonable accommodation requested by the employee, the accommodations the employer considered, the reason for the employer’s decision, and other information regarding the agreed upon (or denied) accommodation.

  • Monitor Accommodations: Accommodations may be granted on a temporary basis to determine efficacy and may be modified. Employers should monitor accommodations once they are implemented to ensure they remain effective and continue to allow the employee to carry out the essential functions of the job.

  • Implement a Policy: Accommodation policies help clarify how employees may bring accommodation requests and how such requests are evaluated. Employers should implement and/or review existing policies for handling accommodation requests to ensure they comply with the ADA.


The jury’s decision in Menninger reiterates that employees’ accommodation requests should be addressed with care. Managers should be trained in the handling of accommodation requests and should not dismiss a request simply because they are unsure whether it qualifies as a disability under the ADA. By providing reasonable accommodations, employers may improve the well-being of their employees while allowing them to continue to perform their jobs.

Employers with questions regarding reasonable accommodations are encouraged to contact the authors of this article or another attorney in Venable’s Labor and Employment Group.