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Garrison v. Dolgencorp, LLC, No. 18-1066 (8th Cir. Oct. 3, 2019)

By Paul Mollica

The Eighth Circuit reminds employers that even where a disabled employee requests an accommodation that is deemed unreasonable, they are still obliged to engage in an interactive process to see if any other accommodation might work.

Garrison v. Dolgencorp, LLC, No. 18-1066 (8th Cir. Oct. 3, 2019): Garrison is a Dollar Store sales associate "who suffers from anxiety, migraines, and depression" and "wished to take a leave of absence due to her worsening medical condition. At one point, following a visit to her doctor, Garrison texted [immediate supervisor] Bell and asked, '[h]ow can I request a leave of absence[?],' to which Bell responded, 'I'm not sure [but] I'll talk to [the district manager].'"

After further exchanges by text, about a week later, Garrison and Bell met face-to-face. "During the meeting, Garrison made clear that she was seeking a leave of absence due to anxiety and depression. Bell reiterated that she did not believe that any form of leave was available and warned Garrison that she could not remain a full-time employee or continue as a key holder if she kept missing shifts."

The next week, Garrison visited the emergency room (associated with her recurring anxiety) and called Bell to ask for vacation time. This request was denied and Garrison quit. Garrison sued under the ADA, FMLA, and the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). The district court granted summary judgment on all claims.

The Eighth Circuit reverses on the ADA reasonable accommodation claim. The two issues that were in dispute were whether Garrison did enough to put the company on notice (1) about her disability and (2) that she was seeking an accommodation.

On the first issue, there was evidence that "Garrison discussed her health problems with Bell, including the medications she was prescribed to treat them, and informed her whenever she needed to be absent for doctor's appointments," and that "Bell's texts make it clear that she understood that Garrison's absences from work and her inquiries about leave were due to her health."

On the second issue, it was undisputed that Garrison repeatedly requested a leave of absence from Bell to cope with her health issues. While "Garrison never used the word accommodation or asked about anything other than leave," the panel notes that "an employee need not even suggest what accommodation might be appropriate to have an actionable claim."

Once Garrison established that she'd made a request for a reasonable accommodation, "Dollar General had an obligation to 'take some initiative' and identify a reasonable accommodation." Here, the employer did little more than reject Garrison's request (multiple times) and direct her to read the company's employee handbook.

Also, there was evidence that an accommodation was possible. "Bell testified that she would have 'protect[ed]' Garrison's job and made it work if Garrison had been entitled to FMLA leave . . . . So it stands to reason that Dollar General could have found a way to make leave (or some other reasonable accommodation) work under the ADA too had Bell considered it."

Garrison's other claims, including discrimination, constructive discharge, interference and retaliation under the various statutes, fail for want of an "adverse employment action." The two alleged actions - "telling co-workers that Garrison intended to quit and warning [Garrison] that she could no longer be a key holder or a full-time employee if she did not work her assigned shifts" - are deemed insufficiently serious to be actionable. Garrison's FMLA claim also fails because she did not take a required step (contacting the company's third-party leave administrator) to initiate leave.