In the case of Boandl v. Geithner, No.: 09-4799 (E.D. Pa. 11/2/2010), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that a jury was permitted to hear the claims of Richard Boandl, a disabled former IRS Revenue Agent, in which he alleged that the IRS had failed to engage in the interactive process required by the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when his immediate supervisory summarily denied his verbal request to provide him with a cell phone to assist him in the performance of his investigative duties.
At a young age, Boandl had been infected with polio, and as a result, has been disabled for most of his life. He has a severe limp, cannot stand for more than a few minutes at a time, and requires the use of a cane to walk short distances and a wheelchair to travel distances of more than twenty yards. Boandl had been employed as a Revenue Agent with the IRS from 1983 until 2004.
In late 2003, Boandl spoke to his immediate supervisor and requested that the IRS issue him a cell phone as a reasonable accommodation for his disability. Boandl alleged that he needed a cell phone to assist in his investigative duties, which required traveling outside his office to locate tax non-filers and visit witnesses. Boandl told his supervisor that because of his disability, it was difficult for him to repeatedly have to get in and out of his car, walk and stand while in the process of trying to locate, and then use, a working pay phone while out of the office. Boandl alleged that his supervisor immediately denied his request. Boandl then emailed a copy of his cell phone request to his supervisor on or about December 11, 2003. On January 20, 2004, Boandl's supervisor provided him with a written memorandum officially denying his request for a cell phone on the basis that the IRS did not issue cell phones to any employees holding Boandl's position, and that the ability to be able to return phone calls while in the field was not an essential function of Boandl's position.
In denying the government's subsequent Motion for Summary Judgment on this issue, the Court found that Boandl had produced sufficient evidence that would allow a jury to conclude that the IRS had failed to engage in the interactive process required by the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA because Boandl's supervisor had summarily denied his oral request for an accommodation. Moreover, the Court noted that the IRS' stated reason for denying Boandl' request, i.e., that the need to return phone calls while in the field was not an essential function of his position, was not the sole reason for Boandl's cell phone request. Rather, Boandl had specifically alleged that he had investigative duties while out of the office, such as locating non-tax filers and locating witnesses, which required the use of a cell phone. The Court held that because the government had failed to present any evidence that these tasks were not essential functions of Boandl's job, it was not entitled to summary judgment on this claim. Therefore, a dispute existed over whether the tasks identified by Boandl were essential functions of his position, which was required to be resolved by a jury.
The lesson that employers and HR specialists need to take away from this case is that summarily denying requests for accommodation under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act is never good practice. Rather, each request, even if it may facially appear to not require an accommodation, should be given its due consideration and analysis. A summary denial of any request for accommodation, especially one that is made verbally, can leave an employer exposed to a claim for failure to engage in the required interactive process.