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When Is a Request for Accommodation Not a Request for Accommodation?

If an employee with a history of anxiety presents a list of requested actions for workplace grievances and labels it a “request for accommodation,” is it? How do you distinguish between gripes about the work environment and legitimate requests for accommodations under the ADA? In Kelly v. Town of Abingdon, 90 F.4th 158 (4th Cir. 2024), the Fourth Circuit provided some valuable insight into this issue.

In Kelly, a law firm representing a Town Manager who suffered from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure sent the Town a letter seeking changes to the “daily office environment.”  It entitled the letter “Accommodations Requests” and referenced the ADA, but opened by stating that its “overall aim” was “to foster a well-running office, based on the principles of mutual respect, clear communication, and . . . well-defined roles.” The letter then listed twelve requests to further this goal, including compliance with the Code of Ethics; adherence to defined roles; an end to threats of termination; courtesy in communications; equal treatment for employees; improved gender diversity; an acknowledgment that management is a team; and the development of written policies governing workplace conduct. Significantly, the letter did not mention the Town Manager’s anxiety, depression or high blood pressure; did not explain how the proposed changes might alleviate those conditions; and did not state that it was seeking accommodations for them.

Addressing the Town’s contention that the letter was insufficient to trigger the duty to accommodate, the court noted that a request must be sufficient to allow an employer to differentiate between protected requests for accommodation and everyday workplace grievances. It then listed the following governing principles:

  • While the burden of requesting an accommodation is light, not every work-related request by a disabled employee constitutes a request for accommodation. A request need not “formally invoke the magic words ‘reasonable accommodation,’” but it must make clear that the employee wants assistance for his disability.
  • To properly invoke the ADA, the communication must be “sufficiently direct and specific” to provide notice that the employee needs a “special accommodation” for a medical condition. 
  • Because an employee may seek changes to his working conditions for any number of reasons unrelated to a disability, such as “personality conflicts that pervade many a workplace,” merely labeling a list of suggestions a request for accommodation is not enough to inform the employer that the employee is requesting workplace changes to address a disability, rather than other, unrelated issues.
  • To place an employer on notice, there must be a logical bridge connecting the employee’s disability to the requested changes. Though the bridge need not be explicit in the request, the substance of the request must be sufficient to allow the employer to infer that the request relates to the employee’s disability. In other words, the substance of the communication governs, not its title.

The court found this “logical bridge” absent in Kelly’s request because the content of the letter bore no connection to his or anyone else’s disability and a reasonable employer could easily read the letter as a list of grievances and suggestions issued in response to workplace politics and personality conflicts. As a result, his claim for failure to accommodate failed.

We are often cautioned not “to place form over substance,” and requests for accommodation under the ADA are no different. Simply stating it does not make it so – nor does failing to mention it eliminate the obligation. As logic would suggest.

Questions? Contact Al Seneczko at (262) 560-9696.  Or by email

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