Missouri Court of Appeals Finds Accommodation Requests to be Protected Activity

Retaliation claims can prove troublesome for employers and have resulted in significant liability under both federal and state law. Evidence of such difficulty can be seen in a Missouri Court of Appeals case regarding reasonable accommodations under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA).  In Li Lin v. Matthew J. Ellis and The Washington University in Saint Louis, ED105886, former employee Li Lin (hereinafter “Lin”) claimed retaliatory discharge in violation of the MHRA after she was terminated subsequent to requesting an accommodation related to a disability.  After a jury sided with Lin, the University appealed, arguing that requesting an accommodation is not a “protected activity” under the MHRA.

To establish a claim for retaliation under the MHRA, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) she participated in a protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action exists.  The University argued that Lin did not participate in a protected activity because the text of the MHRA does not specify that requesting an accommodation is a protected activity. Rather, argued the University, the MHRA provides specific examples of protected activities, including filing complaints and participating in an investigation.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, however, finding that the MHRA implicitly assumes accommodation requests qualify as protected activity.

In his opinion, the Honorable Christopher M. McGraugh wrote, “Because requesting an accommodation is a preliminary step in the process of seeking protections under the MHRA, we conclude it constitutes a protected activity that may give rise to a claim of retaliation.”  He also described reasonable accommodations as “one of the foundations of disability discrimination law.”  The court expressed fear that employers may use accommodation requests as a tool for determining whether an employee has a disability, then terminating him or her because of said disability before the employee participates in other protected activity.

The court also mentioned several times, however, that a request must be made “in good faith” before it qualifies as a protected activity.  Judge McGraugh explained that the classification of a request for an accommodation as protected activity is balanced by the requirement that the requester has a reasonable belief that the request is consistent with Missouri law.  The court may have articulated this to demonstrate that while they are aware of how easy it may be for an employee to illegitimately gain protection under the MHRA, individuals who improperly take advantage of it will not gain its protection.

Based on the court’s opinion, if an employee sincerely avails themselves to the protections or benefits of the MHRA, regardless of the form such may take, they are entitled to remain free from retaliation.  Accordingly, employers must allow employees to exert their rights under the MHRA and take no retaliatory action based on such conduct.

The St. Louis employment attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters for over sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others. As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation as every situation must be evaluated on its own facts. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements

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Tim represents management in all areas of labor and employment law.