Federal Court Finds Employee’s Explanation for Failed Drug Test Insufficient to Provide Notice of a Disability

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Most employers are well aware that, under state and federal disability laws, an employee with a disability is entitled to reasonable accommodations in the workplace.  What can sometimes be less clear for employers is determining at what point the obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation arises.  Not surprisingly, the answer often depends on the facts.

As a case in point, a federal district court recently held that an employee’s disclosure that he was taking oxycodone for his back pain was not sufficient to put the employer on notice that he had a disability or that he required an accommodation.  Angel v. Lisbon Valley Mining Co., LLC (D. Utah, Nov. 23, 2015).  The employee disclosed that he was taking oxycodone after he had failed a drug test. Although the employee told human resources that the medication was for a back impairment and provided them a copy of his prescription along with a physician’s note, the court found neither the prescription nor the doctor’s note was sufficient to notify the employer that he was claiming a disability or asking for an accommodation.  In this case, the court held that the employer’s mere awareness of the employee’s physical condition (i.e. back pain) was insufficient to show that it was aware of an alleged disability or a request for accommodation.

Although it is difficult to generalize from the facts of a particular case, the outcome in Angel nonetheless confirms that the duty to provide a reasonable accommodation is triggered only after an employee has put the employer on notice of a disability and a desire for an accommodation. Although an employee’s accommodation request can be in “plain English” and does not need to use any special words, it must still be sufficient to notify the employer that the employee needs a modification at work and that the modification is related to a medical condition.