Many people exercise daily, and for Shannan McDonald, her exercise was prescribed by her physician for her genetic disorder.  McDonald, employed as a receptionist for UAW-GM Center for Human Resources (CHR), regularly exercised in her employer’s on-site gym during her lunch break.  Per the collective bargaining agreement that covered her employment, each year CHR permitted employees to elect annually whether to take a 60 minute lunch break or a 30 minute lunch break with two other 15 minute breaks. The election remained in place for the entire year following election. McDonald chose the 30 minute lunch break.

In February 2014, McDonald began extending her lunch break without authorization and going to the gym each day at 10:30 am.  Around the same time, other employees who worked in different departments made multiple complaints about McDonald’s behavior and conduct.  In June 2014, McDonald asked her supervisor if she could extend her lunch break to sixty minutes so she could work out longer at the gym. She did mention that she was exercising due to a previous surgery, but she did not mention her disability.  McDonald’s supervisor denied the request to change her lunch break, explaining that it was not possible given the policy of the lunch break election remaining in effect for a year. However, her supervisor did offer an alternate proposal, suggesting that McDonald could arrive earlier and exercise before her shift began.

Displeased with her supervisor’s response, McDonald bypassed her supervisor and went up the chain of command. She presented a letter from her doctor stating that she needed to exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes.  The director responded that the request would need to be reviewed by multiple people. When McDonald asked for a status update, she was informed that the request was being considered but it was likely going to be “okay.”  Later the same day, without her request being formally approved, McDonald proceeded to go to the gym early. Her supervisor caught her and instructed her to return to work. McDonald responded with profanity. Given this outburst, her supervisor recommended that she be suspended. After a meeting with the union, in which McDonald admitted to her use of profanity, CHR suspended McDonald for two days.  McDonald never returned to work; rather, she took personal leave and then voluntarily resigned her employment in July 2014.

In McDonald v. UWA-GM Center for Human Resources, No. 17-1875 (6th Cir. 2018), McDonald sued CHR under the ADA for discriminating against her based on her disability, for retaliation, and for constructive discharge. The district court granted CHR’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. McDonald appealed, and the 6th Circuit affirmed.

The ADA requires employers like CHR to make reasonable accommodations to the known limitations of an employee with a disability, as long as the accommodation does not cause the company undue hardship. To establish a case of disability discrimination, McDonald needed to establish that:

  1. She was disabled
  2. She was qualified for her position
  3. Her employer knew of her disability
  4. She requested an accommodation
  5. Her employer failed to provide the necessary accommodation

The Sixth Circuit held that McDonald could not establish that CHR failed to provide her with a necessary accommodation.

The letter from McDonald’s physician did not explicitly state that she needed an extended lunch break, nor did it state that her exercises must occur at a specific time of day or be completed during an uninterrupted time period. In addition, McDonald’s supervisor suggested an alternative accommodation that McDonald rejected. Moreover, CHR never denied McDonald’s accommodation request.  The decision-makers never rendered a final decision as to McDonald’s request and had suggested to her that the request ”likely” would be “okay.” Further, McDonald’s employment ended only because she voluntarily quit.  The 6th Circuit found that CHR engaged in an interactive process with McDonald and did not discriminate against her.

The 6th Circuit also determined that CHR did not retaliate against McDonald for making an accommodation request. All of the evidence indicated that McDonald was suspended for two days for the legitimate reason of her use of profanity and insubordination towards her supervisor. Although the profanity and insubordination were related to her accommodation request, the accommodation request was not the reason for the discipline.

The accommodation process is a two-way street. Courts are far less likely to find in favor of an employee in a discrimination case where the employer engaged in discussions, proposed alternatives, and did not immediately reject an accommodation request.  To avoid the possibility of discrimination claims, employers should always engage in the interactive process in good faith.