Marie Picard worked for St. Tammany Parish Hospital as a transcriptionist from July 1998 to November 2006. Picard was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, a condition delaying nerve impulse propagation. The condition resulted in Picard having difficulty walking, working, shopping, and engaging in activities requiring fine motor skills. Picard’s doctor wrote a letter to her employer indicating that as a result of the CMT, her ability to perform her transcription duties was “impaired” and “constituted a significant handicap”. The doctor suggested that this be taken into account in performance reviews. Subsequently, in 2005, another of her doctors wrote to her employer that it would be beneficial for her to have the speech-to-text software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, installed on her computer to improve her work performance. St. Tammany did not provide the software or engage in an interactive process. She was permitted to use another program, ExSpeak. Picard tried the alternate program, finding it difficult and painful, and informed her employer that she could not use it. She then resigned from her position in November 2006.
On February 4, 2008, Picard filed suit against St. Tammany in the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging a violation of Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). At trial, a jury found for the employer defendant, holding that Picard’s CMT was not a disability as defined by the ADA. Picard appealed this ruling, and also appealed on the grounds that the jury should have been instructed that an employer’s failure to engage in “interactive process” is a “per se” violation of the ADA.
Picard testified that she could manage her difficulty walking by paying attention and that a friend assisted her in shopping. She testified that she sometimes dropped items due to limitations in fine motor skills, but also that she was able to perform at her next employment position, including “pulling apart charts” and filing. The court reasoned that based on these facts, and her ability to continue working, the jury might have concluded she did not have a qualifying disability under the ADA.
The Fifth Circuit has acknowledged that an interactive process may be needed in order to negotiate a reasonable accommodation. However, an interactive process may not be required, for instance, in circumstances where the accommodation request is so obvious that no negotiation is needed, or when the employee has not established that a qualifying disability exists before requesting an accommodation. Therefore, the failure to engage in an interactive process is not a “per se” violation of the ADA.
The 5th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling for the employer, holding that a reasonable jury could have found that Picard’s condition was not a disability, and that the district court did not make a mistake in opting not to instruct the jury that failure to engage in an interactive process is a per se violation of the ADA.
The definition of disability suggested in this case appears to presume that an impairment is less likely to be “substantial” if it can be managed by the individual, or with third party assistance, or if it does not completely negate participation in a major life activity. While it should be acknowledged that the incidents underlying this case preceded the implementation of the ADA Amendments Act, the narrow interpretation of “substantial” in this case may be incorrect under present law.