Here at the Fair Housing Defense blog, we have regularly discussed the need for management to respond to requests for reasonable accommodations and/or reasonable modifications received from our residents. A recent court decision from California reminds us all of the importance to make sure supervisors are promptly (if not immediately) told of previous agreed-upon accommodations. The following is an employment case, but it provides a good lesson for those of us in the apartment ownership and management business as well. Particularly when management personnel change.

The case involved an employee who returned to work as a cashier after undergoing cancer treatment. Because of the side effects of the cancer treatment, the employee needed to drink plenty of water and, not surprisingly, she needed to urinate frequently. The employer agreed to allow the employee to drink at the check out counter and to provide bathroom breaks as needed. The employer successfully provided these accommodations from January 2004 until February 2005.

A new manager began working at the store in February 2005. For whatever reason, this new supervisor did not know (or was not told) about the employee’s disability or the store’s accommodation. The employee asked the manager for a break. At the time, the manager was the only employee on duty who could take over for his colleague. The manager asked the employee if she could wait because a delivery truck was arriving. The employee did so. Later that day, when the employee had a line of customers at her stand, she told the manager she needed to go to the bathroom. The manager was unloading merchandise and said he could not relieve the cashier. About 10 minutes later, the cashier again said she really needed to use the restroom. The manager told the employee that he was too busy to relieve her. The employee could not control herself and urinated while standing at her the checkstand.

The employee became severely distraught and developed severe anxiety and depression, including thoughts of suicide. She sued her employer for failing to accommodate her disability under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The trial court found in the employee’s favor and awarded her $200,000 in damages, including $148,000 for past emotional distress.

The appellate court affirmed, holding that employers can be liable for even a single failure to provide an agreed upon reasonable accommodation. The court rejected the employer’s contention that, by not informing the new manager of her disability and accommodation, the employee had failed to meet a continuing duty to communicate. The court concluded that, once the parties have identified and agreed upon an accommodation, the employee does not have a duty to inform every new supervisor of the accommodation.

We should all learn from this defendant’s expensive mistake by carefully documenting all reasonable accommodation requests and ensuring that supervisors are up-to-date and that management consistently provide — and keep track of — agreed upon accommodations.

Just A Thought.