Disability Discrimination Under Maine’s Human Rights Act (MHRA)
Written By: Joanne Simonelli, Esq.
The Bennett Law Firm, P.A.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
Under Maine law, a claim of disability discrimination under Maine’s Human Rights Act (MHRA) must be brought within two years of the alleged discriminatory act. An employer’s denial of a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation is a discrete act of alleged discrimination from which the applicable statute of limitations period begins to run, similar to a termination, a refusal to transfer, or a failure to promote. For purposes of the MHRA, it is well settled that the limitations period begins to run when an employee receives unambiguous and authoritative notice of an employer’s alleged discriminatory decision.
In a recent decision, Maine’s highest Court clarified the meaning of a discrete act of disability discrimination in the context of an employer’s denial of an employee’s renewed request for accommodation. Depending on the circumstances, an employer’s denial may trigger a new violation from which a new limitations period begins to run.
Renewed Request for Accommodation Based on the Same Circumstances
The Court confirmed that an employer’s denial of an employee’s renewed request for an accommodation is not a discrete act that triggers a new limitations period when the denial is the result of the employer’s unwillingness to reverse a previous allegedly discriminatory decision and the circumstances have not changed.
Renewed Request for Accommodation Based on Changed Circumstances
Where a significant and material change of circumstances occurs involving either the employee’s disability or the employer’s ability to accommodate the disability, and the employee makes a new request for a reasonable accommodation based upon such a change in circumstances, an employer’s subsequent denial of that request is a new discrete act of discrimination that establishes a starting point for a new two-year statute of limitations period.
What does all this mean for employers?
Even where an employer’s initial decision to deny an accommodation request is beyond the two-year statute of limitations, renewed accommodation requests may subject the employer to a new or even multiple claims of disability discrimination. Therefore, on each occasion an employer is faced with a renewed request for accommodation, it must determine whether there is a significant and material change in circumstances, whether to its own ability to accommodate or to the employee’s disability.
INTERACTIVE PROCESS NOT REQUIRED BY MHRA
Unlike a claim brought pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the MHRA does not impose a duty upon an employer to engage in an interactive process with a disabled employee to identify reasonable accommodations. Rather, the MHRA provides the employer an affirmative defense to a discrimination claim regarding a failure to accommodate. Under the MHRA an employer may avoid damages when it can demonstrate good faith efforts, in consultation with the disabled employee, to identity and make reasonable accommodations.
What does all this mean for employers?
Whether a disability discrimination claim is brought pursuant to federal or state law, the interactive process comes into play. Employers may use this process both to comply with its duty under federal law and thus avoid a potential claim or to establish its defense under the MHRA and thus defeat a potential claim.
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