Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau Prevails on Appeal to Connecticut Supreme Court in Disability Discrimination Case

Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau recently secured a victory on an appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court in a case which provides important guidance in disability discrimination cases involving requests for reasonable accommodations. The Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision in Kovachich v. Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services followed a 2018 trial in which we obtained a judgment in which the trial court found that the employer discriminated against our client, Virlee Kovachich, by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for her disability, and also retaliated against our client by constructively discharging her from her employment because she filed a complaint of discrimination. Ms. Kovachich, who suffers from a disability relating to sensitivity to scents that can be so disabling that it results in hospitalization, sought accommodations from her employer in the form of additional notice and education to other employees regarding the workplace rule designating the area that Ms. Kovachich worked in as a fragrance-free area, as well as action by the employer to enforce the scent-free restriction by imposing discipline in cases where other employees intentionally violated the restriction. In addition to finding that the employer had discriminated against and retaliated against Ms. Kovachich, the trial court awarded her $125,000 in emotional distress and an increased pension, in addition to more than $415,000 in attorney’s fees and costs.

Following the trial court’s judgment in favor of Ms. Kovachich, the employer appealed to the Connecticut Appellate Court, which reversed the trial court’s decision based on several evidentiary rulings that the trial court made during the trial and directed that the case be re-tried.

Our office then appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court, with the assistance of additional appellate counsel. The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Court and issued important guidance for disability discrimination cases involving reasonable accommodations. Contrary to the rule adopted by the Appellate Court, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided that communications sent by our office on behalf of Ms. Kovachich seeking to engage in the good faith interactive process that is required in disability discrimination cases could be relied upon as evidence for the purpose of demonstrating the parties’ engagement in, or failure to engage in, the good faith interactive process.

In reaching that decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed important principles relating to the right to reasonable accommodations for disabilities, including that an employer has a duty to act in good faith as part of the interactive process relating to possible reasonable accommodations, and that the employer’s obligation to participate in good faith in the interactive process is ongoing and continuous – – even after the employee files an official complaint alleging disability discrimination.

As Attorney Jacques Parenteau explained to other news media who reported on the decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision should be of assistance to other employees and their attorneys in future disability discrimination cases where an employee is seeking to enforce their right to reasonable accommodations for a qualifying disability.