In Black v. USPS, EEOC Appeal No. 01A42589 (2006), the Commission decided that the Postal Service failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for a letter carrier supervisor with a bipolar condition. According to the employee’s physician, during bipolar episodes that would render him incapacitated, he was unable to communicate with others including friends and family.

In June 2000, Mr. Black began to experience bipolar episodes that prevented him from performing his duties at work. Mr. Black did not return to work until September 2000. During the period when Mr. Black was on leave, he submitted a statement from his physician giving the Postal Service notice that working conditions requiring Mr. Black to interact with large groups of people for more than eight hours would exacerbate his stress. Mr. Black’s physician concluded that relieving Mr. Black from this stress would help his treatment. When Mr. Black returned, the Postal Service placed him on “light duty,” assigning him supervision over 20 letter carriers, which required him to work five to 10 hours of overtime each week.

In October 2000, Mr. Black’s physician clarified his accommodation request to limit Mr. Black’s work to eight hours per day and limiting his supervision to 10 employees. The Postal Service did not adjust Mr. Black’s supervisory assignment, but Mr. Black nonetheless performed the duties of his position. Although the number of employees he supervised was greater than the 10 recommended by his physician and he worked longer than eight hours, Mr. Black considered himself “accommodated.”

However, in January 2002, the Postal Service changed Mr. Black’s supervisory responsibilities by assigning him 47 letter carriers, resulting in an additional 20 hours of overtime each week. Eventually, Mr. Black filed for workers’ compensation because the increased supervisory obligations and additional work hours triggered another bipolar episode. When Mr. Black attempted to return to work in February 2002, his supervisor instructed him to leave.

The Commission decided that the Postal Service discriminated against Mr. Black when it disregarded his requests for reasonable accommodation and defied Mr. Black’s requests by assigning him more letter carriers in contravention of his physician’s recommendations. In finding that the Postal Service discriminated against Mr. Black, the Commission clarified what constituted a disability under the Rehabilitation Act. Before determining whether the Postal Service had an obligation to accommodate Mr. Black, he needed to establish that he was a qualified individual with a disability. Merely stating that he was bipolar does not necessarily mean that his is disabled. Mr. Black needed to establish that the bipolar condition rendered him substantially limited in a major life activity.

From Mr. Black’s physician statements, the Commission considered Mr. Black substantially limited in the major life activity of interacting with others. Specifically, when Mr. Black suffered from a bipolar episode, he would be incapacitated, often silent, and unable to talk. Mr. Black would isolate himself to his home or work desk, thus disrupting his ability to communicate at a basic level with friends, family, and coworkers.

The Commission concluded that the Postal Service did not have a valid reason for denying Mr. Black’s request to allow him to continue working under the accommodations the Postal Service previously granted him from October 2000 to January 2002. During these two years, both Mr. Black and the Postal Service considered the working relationship to be productive. However, despite no change in Mr. Black’s medical condition, the Postal Service failed to act in good faith to accommodate Mr. Black when it unilaterally increased his supervisory role and prohibited him from returning to work after he reiterated his reasonable accommodation request.

Although the Commission found that the Postal Service had discriminated against Mr. Black, the opinion also illustrates how the interactive process required under the Rehabilitation Act is useful for employee and employer. When Mr. Black made a reasonable accommodation request in 2000, his physician recommended supervision over 10 workers and limiting his work day to eight hours. The Postal Service then assigned Mr. Black 20 workers and five to 10 hours of overtime. By engaging in the interactive process, both Mr. Black and the Postal Service were able to make a compromise with regards to working conditions. However, when the Postal Service changed Mr. Black’s working conditions in 2002, it failed to engage in the interactive process with Mr. Black. If an agency wants to change working conditions for an employee who is working under reasonable accommodations, the agency has a continuing obligation to interact with the employee and consult the employee prior to instituting the change.

This information is provided by the attorneys at Passman & Kaplan, P.C., a law firm dedicated to the representation of federal employees worldwide. For more information on Passman & Kaplan, P.C., go to http://www.passmanandkaplan.com.

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