By Honore Hishamunda and Alex S. Drummond

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs in disability discrimination cases often have sympathetic facts on their side. A recent decision out of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, however, highlighted that courts are tasked with applying the law in such cases even if doing so leads to a loss for a sympathetic plaintiff.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among other things, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees qualified to perform the essential functions of their jobs and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the ADA. Additionally, ADA cases often involve sympathetic plaintiffs. However, a recent First Circuit Court of Appeals decision – Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC – highlighted the importance of applying the law in such cases even where doing so results in a loss for a sympathetic plaintiff.

The plaintiff in the case was an assistant manager for a fast food franchise. One evening while depositing money on behalf of his employer, plaintiff was “attacked at gunpoint, hit over the head, and had his car stolen.” In the aftermath, plaintiff began to suffer from PTSD and depression. He then requested, as a reasonable accommodation, that he be excused from the company’s rotating shift policy (which rotated managers across the franchise’s district map and placed them on two different day shifts, and an evening shift). After initially agreeing to do so, the employer denied the request.

Plaintiff sued claiming a failure to accommodate. Further, the plaintiff alleged that after making his request, he was retaliated against as he was treated poorly by his co-workers. The First Circuit, affirming the District Court, granted employer’s motion for summary judgment on both of plaintiff’s claims. In doing so, the court noted that its decision was “a lesson straight out of the school of hard knocks” and that “[n]o matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

The First Circuit held that the employer did not have to provide any accommodation to plaintiff as he was not qualified to perform the essential functions of his job. Specifically, the court found that the ability to work on a rotating shift was one of the essential functions of his job. In doing so, the court noted that (i) both the employer and plaintiff admitted that rotating shifts was an essential function; (ii) the employer’s job applications for assistant managers and advertising for the same highlighted the need to work rotating shifts; and (iii) permitting plaintiff to bypass the requirement would hamper the employer’s ability to flexibly schedule the remaining assistant managers.

The First Circuit also held that the employer did not retaliate against plaintiff for asserting his ADA rights. Specifically, the court found that plaintiff’s allegations – which focused on being scolded by supervisors for bypassing the chain of command, feeling embarrassed by supervisors treatment, and being made to feel as if he was lying about his health conditions – individually and collectively fell short of statutorily prohibited retaliation. In doing so, the court noted that only treatment that could “dissuade[] a reasonable worker form making or supporting a charge of discrimination” or that produces “a significant, not trivial harm” is actionable. Further, the court found that plaintiff’s allegations fell short of this level and instead characterized his allegations as “nothing more than the petty insults and minor annoyances” which are not actionable under the ADA.

This decision highlights that, even in the ADA context, courts must and will apply the law even if doing so results in a loss for otherwise sympathetic plaintiffs.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

By Kevin A. Fritz

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decline of a Seventh Circuit appellate decision solidifies that where an employee is medically unable to return to work within a very short time period following a leave of absence, the employer has no additional federal legal obligation to provide additional leave, or hold the employee’s job open.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined review of a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision establishing a rule that leave of more than a few weeks in duration falls outside an employers’ reasonable accommodation obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

Plaintiff took Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for multiple herniated discs in his back. He notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery the same day his FMLA leave expired, and he requested another three months of medical leave to allow him to return to work. The employer denied this request and discharged his employment. Plaintiff sued, claiming that his employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation by denying him the additional leave.

What is interesting about this case is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief in support of Plaintiff’s claims. The agency argued that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating this additional leave poses an undue hardship.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. In its decision, the Court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA. The Court never answered the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship because once it found that employees who are unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are “not qualified” as defined by the ADA, the inquiry stops.

Now, the Supreme Court’s decline to review this holding establishes that, at least in the Seventh Circuit, employers do not have to provide significant additional leave following expiration under the FMLA because doing so would convert the ADA to a medical leave entitlement statute. Which it is not. The Seventh Circuit stands in opposition to four other federal appellate circuits and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which treat leave in the same manner as any other requested medical accommodation. Other appellate courts, including the Fourth Circuit and Eleventh Circuit have not litigated this issue up to the appellate level.

As the workforce continues to change its makeup, and individuals continue to take leaves of absences to attend to their personal needs, this area will surely continue to develop.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Kristina M. Launey and Myra B. Villamor

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs who pursued numerous web accessibility actions under Title III of the ADA are now using website accessibility to test the limits of a different area of law – employment law – California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Over the past few years, we have frequently written about the proliferation of demand letters and lawsuits alleging that a business denied a usually blind or vision-impaired individual access to its goods and services because the business’ website was not accessible, in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state laws.

One firm that pursued many web accessibility actions under Title III and California’s Unruh Act (including a success in the Bags N’ Baggage case decided in plaintiff’s favor by a California state court) is now going after employers. In recent demand letters and lawsuits, they are alleging that employment websites are not accessible to blind job seekers, in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California’s corollary to Title I of the ADA.

While this blog, and Seyfarth’s Disability Access Team, are focused on disability access issues affecting places of public accommodation that provide goods and services to the general public (not employees, though many of our team members are employment specialists as well), this emerging litigation trend is worthy of our discussion here because it is an extension of the tsunami of website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits pursued under Title III, involving the same technological and other issues, as well as the same plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys.  But there is one big difference – the legal standard that applies to employment disability discrimination claims is different from the standard applied to disability discrimination claims brought against public accommodations.

Title III is unique from other anti-discrimination statutes in that it requires (with exceptions) businesses take affirmative, proactive measures to ensure individuals with disabilities are afforded equal access to their goods and services. FEHA prohibits discrimination against individuals in employment.  It requires employers, upon notice that an employee or applicant for employment requires a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of his or her job, or to apply for employment, to engage in the interactive process to devise such a reasonable accommodation.  The employer does not need to provide the employee or applicant’s requested accommodation as long as the accommodation provided is effective.

In the cases filed thus far, such as those by Dominic Martin, Roy Rios, and Abelardo Martinez in Orange County and San Diego Superior Courts in California last week, the plaintiffs argue that they are blind residents of California who want to enter the workforce, attempted to apply using the defendant’s online application, but could not because it was inaccessible to individuals with disabilities. They claim the WAVE tool confirmed the website’s inaccessibility (an automated tool like WAVE, while useful, cannot be relied upon to determine whether a website is accessible or not, let alone useable by an individual with a disability).

In these lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim that they twice asked the defendant to remove the barriers and were ignored.  Plaintiffs also claim that removing the barriers would take only a few hours (which anyone who has worked in the website accessibility space knows is rarely if ever possible).  Plaintiffs allege these requests that defendant remove the barriers were requests for reasonable accommodation, though they were sent by the plaintiff’s attorney and not the actual individual seeking employment; thus possibly perceived as litigation demand letters rather than legitimate requests for reasonable accommodation.  The plaintiffs allege that the companies did not respond and that they have a policy to deny disabled individuals equal employment by refusing to remove the barriers on the website.  Each plaintiff alleges only a single legal claim for violation of FEHA, even expressly noting he is not asserting claims for violation of any federal law or regulation.

Will these claims find any success in the courts under the applicable law?  We will be watching.  In the meantime, businesses that have been focusing efforts on consumer-facing websites to mitigate risk under Title III should be aware of this new trend (if you have not already received such a letter).

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Disability Access Team.

Edited by: Minh N. Vu.

By Kelsey P. Montgomery

Seyfarth Synopsis: Employee committed to taking opioids loses his job and his disability discrimination lawsuit because he refused to consider alternative pain management.

The “interactive process” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act, is a two-way street between an employee and his or her employer.  Consistent with this mutual obligation, a federal court in Ohio recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee who refused to consider alternative pain management for his degenerative disc disease and arthritis in his neck and back.

In Sloan v. Repacorp, Inc., No. 3:16-cv-00161 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 27, 2018), the plaintiff worked as a production manager for Repacorp, which manufactures and prints labels using heavy machinery.  While Sloan’s job required him to spend only a small portion of his time working on heavy machinery, he always worked around this equipment and his working environment was extremely dangerous.  As a safety precaution, Repacorp maintained a policy requiring employees to notify management if they were taking nonprescription or prescription medication.

A year before his termination, Sloan began taking morphine and Vicodin while at work.  Occasionally, he took the morphine in a manner inconsistent with his prescription and he did not have a prescription for Vicodin.  He secured the Vicodin from his mother and a co-worker.  Sloan did not inform his supervisor, or anyone else at Repacorp, that he was taking these medications.  After several months of using these opioids at work, an employee reported to management that Sloan was obtaining Vicodin from his colleague.  He was immediately removed from the manufacturing floor and required to submit to a drug test.

When he tested positive for hydrocodone (an  in Vicodin), Repacorp placed Sloan on leave and referred him to its Employee Assistance Program.  While on leave, Sloan disclosed his morphine prescription.  Fearing a “huge liability,”  Repacorp asked if there were alternative, non-opioid treatments for his pain condition that would not put the company and Sloan at risk.  Although Sloan tried, he was unable to reach his physician to make this inquiry.  He then told the company president, without having consulted his doctor, that he needed to “stay on [his] medication” and that he “wouldn’t stop taking it.”  The company president believed Sloan “chose drugs over his job.”  Because Repacorp did not have any positions that would permit an employee to safely use opioids in the workplace, Repacorp terminated Sloan’s employment following this conversation.

Sloan subsequently filed a lawsuit against Repacorp, alleging disability discrimination under Ohio law and the ADA.  He claimed that Repacorp failed to accommodate his disabilities by refusing to grant his request to use prescription morphine.  Sloan argued that he could have safely performed his job while taking the medication, and that his employer should have conducted a “direct threat” analysis before denying his request.  The Court disagreed, finding that Sloan impeded Repacorp’s ability to investigate the extent of his disability and the breadth of potential accommodations that it might have reasonably afforded to him by refusing to cooperate with the company’s request for additional information.  Without this information, Repacorp could not determine whether Sloan was a qualified individual able to do his job either with or without a reasonable accommodation.  Accordingly, the Court granted Repacorp’s Motion for Summary Judgement and dismissed Sloan’s case.

Employer Take Away

An employer should conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether it can accommodate an employee’s disability.  Had Repacorp simply terminated Sloan for violating its policy against taking medications at work, the Court likely would have decided this case differently.  Thus, it serves as a good reminder for employers to always document their attempts to engage in the interactive process.  If an employee is terminated after refusing to engage with his or her employer, the employer will have a strong defense to any subsequent disability discrimination claim.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By Ariel D. Fenster

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA when the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the position remotely and the request is for a finite period. Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, No 17-5483 (6th Cir. 2018).

The Facts

The Plaintiff, an in-house attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLG&W), requested to work from home for ten weeks while she was on bedrest from pregnancy complications.  MLG&W denied the request.

MLG&W maintained a rather strict policy that attorneys must be in the office from 8:30 am – 5:00 pm.  “However, [it] did not maintain a formal written telecommuting policy at that time, and in practice, employees often telecommuted.”

MLG&W argued that physical presence was an essential function of Plaintiff’s position. Plaintiff stood her ground and stated she was able to perform the essential functions of her position remotely.  In fact, Plaintiff knew she could perform the job remotely.  During the dispute over whether Plaintiff could telecommute, she was also working remotely.  Plaintiff also previously worked remotely for two weeks several years prior.

At trial and in favor of Plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, the jury awarded Plaintiff $92,000 in compensatory damages and $18,184.32 in back pay.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed.  In its finding, the Court noted that MLG&W failed to engage in an interactive process as required by the ADA to determine if working remotely was appropriate. The Court further noted that one of MLG&W’s key pieces of evidence, the job description, was significantly outdated and unreliable (20 years old outdated!).

Additional Guidance

Unfortunately for employers, there is no bright line test on the issue.  Just a handful of cases have weighed in on the “telecommute dispute.”  The two most notable cases come out of the Sixth Circuit, Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, and EEOC v. Ford Motor CoThe cases are distinguishable from Mosby-Meachem for two reasons.  First in Williams and Ford, the employees never previously worked remotely.  Second, the requests to work remotely were for unlimited periods.

Just last month, in Morris-Huse v. Geico, the Middle District of Florida granted Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment holding that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation because Plaintiff’s physical presence was an essential function of her position.  The Court, like many other courts, reasoned that telecommute disputes are highly fact specific and require a true inquiry into the essential functions of the employee’s position.

For some additional guidance, the EEOC has issued some limited guidance on the matter.

Five Helpful Tips

While there is no hard and fast rule as to whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, here are five tips that may avoid putting you in a telecommute dispute:

  1. Evaluate each and every accommodation request on a case by case basis.
  2. Engage in the interactive process with the employee.
  3. Determine if the telecommuting is for a finite period of time.
  4. Think about whether the employee will be able to perform the essential functions of his or her position while telecommuting.
  5. Maintain up-to date job descriptions that accurately reflect the essential functions of each position.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team or the Labor & Employment Team.

By John P. Phillips

Seyfarth Synopsis: Complying with the ADA, particularly when an employee has a mental health-related disability, can be challenging. Fortunately, a recent decision out of the Seventh Circuit provides helpful guidance for employers struggling to accommodate employees with mental health issues while at the same time maintaining safe and productive workplaces. The decision makes clear that in the appropriate circumstances, employers can require an employee to undergo a mental health examination as part of a fitness-for-duty test. The decision—and the New Year—also provides a good excuse for employers to evaluate their ADA policies and procedures.

Every year, employers and HR Departments around the country struggle to comply with the requirements of the ADA. At the same time, ADA-related issues continue to become more complicated, and the individualized nature of disability claims mean that even the most accommodating employers can find themselves making tough decisions—and then having to defend those decisions.

On top of this, there has been a steady rise in employees taking prescription drugs or receiving some form of psychiatric or other mental health treatment. In many cases, these employees have no problem performing their jobs, and no issues arise. However, when these employees begin to struggle in their jobs or, even worse, when they engage in problematic and sometimes aggressive behavior toward co-workers, employers must balance ADA compliance with maintaining safe and professional workplaces. This will continue to be difficult, but a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit provides some helpful guidance.

Background on the Case

In Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, the Seventh Circuit recently considered when an employer can required an employee to undergo a mental health examination. In that case, Painter, the plaintiff, was a problematic employee, who snapped and screamed at co-workers, gave them blank stares, constantly mumbled to herself, repeatedly banged drawers in her office, was confrontational and argumentative, and began keeping a detailed log of interactions with co-workers during working time, often drafting more than one entry per hour. Painter even sent a concerning email to her union representative, in which she referenced “something” being “dead” and which prompted her union representative to contact the police.

Faced with numerous employee concerns and continued difficulties with Painter, her employer, the Illinois Department of Transportation (“IDOT”), asked that she undergo a fitness-for-duty exam. Initially, IDOT referred Painter to an occupational-medicine specialist, who in turn referred her to a psychiatrist because he noted that Painter could be bipolar. Eventually, after several doctor visits, administrative leave, and continued co-worker and supervisor complaints, IDOT asked Painter to undergo two fitness-for-duty exams with a psychiatrist. At first the psychiatrist cleared Painter to return to work, but when the complaints and concerning behavior continued (and after Painter sent the threatening email to her union representative), the psychiatrist found that Painter was unfit for duty because of her “paranoid thinking and the highly disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia.” Painter then brought suit, alleging that IDOT’s requirement that she see a psychiatrist violated the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit’s Reasoning

Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from requiring their workers to undergo medical exams, unless the exams are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Courts across the country have held that the job-related and business necessity test is a difficult burden for employers to meet. Luckily, the Seventh Circuit took a pragmatic view of IDOT’s decision to require psychiatric exams. The Court stated that when the employer “has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a medical condition will impair an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions or that the employee will pose a threat due to a medical condition,” the employer may require a medical exam. The Court also noted that preventing employers from endangering their co-workers is a business necessity, and the Court found that “[e]mployers need not retain workers who, because of a disability, might harm someone; such a rule would force an employer to risk a negligence suit to avoid violating the ADA.”

Applying this legal framework to the facts of the case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that, as a matter of law, the psychiatrist examinations were job-related and consistent with business necessity because IDOT reasonably believed that Painter might be a danger to herself and co-workers. Thus, IDOT did not violate the ADA.

Takeaways and Best Practices

The Seventh Circuit’s decision is welcome news for employers, and it injects much needed common sense into the ADA case law. In particular, employers and HR Departments can consider asking employees to see a psychiatrist for a fitness-for-duty exam in the right circumstances. However, employers must still be careful that any medical examination they require an employee to undergo is directly related to a reasonable belief that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job.

In addition, there are a number of other proactive steps employers can consider to help ensure that disability-related issues are handled appropriately, such as (1) providing ADA and disability training to supervisors and managers, (2) referring all disability claims to HR, (3) implementing a written procedure for dealing with disability claims, (4) going through the interactive process in all instances, (5) ensuring all job descriptions are up-to-date and accurate, (6) documenting everything, and (7) working with a competent physician or medical professional, as appropriate.

ADA and disability-related issues will only continue to proliferate in today’s workplace. Fortunately, at least one court has recognized the practical necessities employers face when complying with the ADA. By knowing the requirements of the ADA and taking proactive steps to ensure compliance, employers can put themselves in the best possible position to handle all disability-related issues appropriately and minimize any legal risk.

 

By David J. Rowland and Megan P. Toth

Seyfarth SynopsisThe Eleventh Circuit is the next to find a long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Just a few months after a recent and definitive decision by the Seventh Circuit that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit has issued a similar opinion. This decision may signal a growing trend that courts are attempting to curb the abuse of long-term leaves of absence under the ADA that has been rampant and debilitating to employers for many years.

In the recent Eleventh Circuit case, Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work and took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.  He was not able to have corrective surgery during this time, so under the employers medical leave policy, he was granted another three-month medical leave.  However, at the end of this period — a total of six months of leave — the employee was still not medically able to return to work. He told the employer that he had a doctors appoint in a month and would likely be released to work in six weeks, but it was unclear whether he would have any restrictions at that time. Thus, the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment and he sued, alleging failure by the employer to provide additional leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on summary judgment. The plaintiff acknowledged that case precedent says that employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves. However, he argued that these prior decisions involved situations where employees suffered from chronic medical conditions that could continue indefinitely. In this case, the plaintiff contended that an unspecified leave was reasonable because there was a projected end date and once concluded, his medical condition would be resolved without the potential need for additional leave.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument finding that even though the plaintiff would eventually recover, his request was essentially an “open-ended request” for leave of a sufficient time to recover, which is not reasonable under the ADA.  The Court also noted that the employer did not violate the ADA because it already provided six months of leave and the plaintiff inarguably could not perform the essential functions of his job at the time of his termination, with or without a reasonable accommodation and therefore he was not a qualified individual.  Thus, the court found that regardless of the nature of his underlying medical condition and his projected but uncertain recovery, the employer was not required to provide continued long-term leave.

It appears that the Seventh Circuit is not the lone-ranger in its attempt to invalidate the EEOC’s historic and strongly advocated position that long-term leaves are required “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA.  If other circuits continue to follow suit, employers may no longer have a legal obligation to provide lengthy post-FMLA leaves of absence, without the need to justify the denial based on specific business needs.  This case also demonstrates the importance of requesting updated medical information from employees nearing the end of FMLA or other medical leave periods.

If an employee cannot medically substantiate that they can return to work close to the expiration of their FMLA leave, employers may have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request. While employers should be aware of this apparently growing trend and may choose to adjust their leave and accommodation approaches accordingly, they still must approach long-term and indefinite leave requests very carefully as there are conflicting decisions from other circuits and the EEOC’s position will remain unchanged unless the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sides with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits.

If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Erin Dougherty Foley, Ashley K. Laken, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: According to the EEOC in this just filed lawsuit, a home care services provider in North Carolina violated federal disability rights law when it rejected telecommuting requests from an employee whose asthma and COPD “made her sensitive to workplace smells.” 

Earlier this month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against a home healthcare company to “correct unlawful employment practices on the basis of disability.”  In the complaint, filed in EEOC v. Advanced Home Care, Inc., No. 1:17-cv-00646 (M.D.N.C. July 12, 2017), the EEOC alleges that Advanced Home Care, Inc. refused to provide Elizabeth Pennell, a “qualified individual with a disability,” with a reasonable accommodation, and discharged her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the EEOC, Pennell was a case manager for patients requiring home services. As a case manager, Pennell was required to spend part of her day on telephone calls. In 2015, Pennell began to experience frequent asthma attacks and flare-ups of bronchitis.  After collapsing at work after a heavy bout of coughing, she was hospitalized where she was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis and COPD.

The complaint alleges that as a “consequence of asthma, bronchitis, and COPD, Pennell experiences wheezing, severe bouts of coughing, and asthma attacks,” and that Pennell’s physical impairments “substantially limit her in the major life activity of breathing. . . and constitute a disability under the ADA.” The EEOC alleges that scents and odors aggravate Pennell’s COPD and asthma, that she worked in a cubicle in close proximity to hundreds of other employees, and that she was therefore subjected to these types of irritants, including the smell of smoke on other employees’ clothes.

The EEOC claims that Pennell’s supervisor “ignored Pennell’s repeated requests to telework” and that teleworking would have allowed Pennell to be away from actual and potential respiratory irritants. The EEOC also claims that Pennell’s supervisor told her she would terminated if she could not return to work without restrictions.  The complaint alleges that Pennell could have performed the essential functions of her position with the reasonable accommodation of telework.  The EEOC also claims that as a consequence of Pennell’s disability, she had difficulty talking continuously for extended periods of time, and if she had been allowed to telework, she would not have been required to take inbound calls and therefore would have spent less time on the phone.

Employers should note that this scenario is somewhat unusual but that telecommuting has been an issue on the EEOC’s radar for the last several months (i.e., is working from home a reasonable accommodation?). Right how we only have the EEOC’s allegations and no response from the employer.  (We’ll be keeping an eye on this litigation to see how it plays out.)  However, the critical take away (regardless of how the employer responded) is the proper handling and response to employee accommodation requests.  Company policies and procedures as well as internal manager training systems for these sorts of requests and responses should be well set out and diligently followed.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Rachel Hoffer, John P. Phillips and Mahek Bhojani

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent win for employers, the Fifth Circuit clarified that opened-ended or unlimited requests to work from home are unreasonable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and may be rejected during the interactive process. In addition, the Court instructed lower courts to give preference over other factors to the employer’s judgment about what constitutes the “essential functions” of a particular job.

In today’s hyper-connected world, with more and more workers seeking to telecommute, the EEOC and plaintiffs’ attorneys often take the position that working from home should always be a viable and obligatory accommodation under the ADA. Employers, especially those who allow limited telecommuting, often find themselves defending failure-to-accommodate claims after rejecting requests for unlimited telecommuting.  Fortunately for employers, the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that in most cases employers do not have an obligation to allow telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation.  In addition, the Court reaffirmed that, in determining what job functions are truly “essential,” an employer’s judgment takes precedence over all other factors.

This case makes clear that open-ended telecommuting is rarely required under the ADA, and it also reassures employers that it is their call which functions their jobs require. Because it’s up to employers to determine the essential functions of employees’ jobs, employers should take the time to reexamine their job descriptions, make sure they are up to date, and ensure that they accurately reflect the requirements of the job.  This exercise will help employers navigate the interactive process when employees seek reasonable accommodations, and will assist employers in arriving at fair, reasonable, and defensible resolutions of disability-related issues.

Case Background

In Credeur v. State of Louisiana, Renee Credeur, a former litigation attorney for the Office of Attorney General for the State of Louisiana (aka the Louisiana DOJ), brought suit against her employer for allegedly failing to accommodate her inability to work in the office following a kidney transplant, and for harassment and retaliation, under the ADA and the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law.

In May 2010, Ms. Credeur underwent a kidney transplant and was granted an accommodation to work from home for approximately six months. She then returned to work in the office full time but three years later began experiencing complications.  Starting in October 2013 and continuing through March 2014, because of ongoing medical complications, she was granted permission to work from home.  In March 2014, the Louisiana DOJ told her that she would not be allowed to work from home indefinitely and that she was required to work in the office at least 3-4 hours a day.  She did not return to work, however, but instead applied for and was granted FMLA and additional unpaid leave from April through August 2014.  When her leave ran out in early August 2014, the Louisiana DOJ again asked Ms. Credeur to return to the office and notified her that litigation attorneys could not work from home indefinitely.

Ms. Credeur subsequently brought suit against the State of Louisiana, claiming that she should have been allowed to work from home indefinitely and as long as her doctors recommended it because working in the office was not an essential function of her job. The district court granted summary judgment for the State of Louisiana.  On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that the ADA did not require the employer to allow Ms. Credeur to work from home indefinitely.

The Court’s Analysis of the Failure-to-Accommodate Claim

The Fifth Circuit analyzed whether regular office attendance was an essential function of the litigation attorney’s job. Ms. Credeur argued it was not because she had successfully worked from home in the past, and that by crediting the DOJ’s statements and rejecting her testimony, the district court had engaged in impermissible credibility determinations at the summary-judgment stage. In reaching a contrary conclusion, the Court first reaffirmed that “regular work-site attendance is an essential function of most jobs.”  This is especially true, the Court continued, when the position is interactive and involves a significant degree of teamwork.

To determine what constitutes an essential function, the Court noted that the ADA itself mentions only the “employer’s judgment”—and any written job descriptions—on that issue.  The Court also referred to the EEOC’s ADA regulations, which identify several other factors, including the amount of time spent performing the particular function, the consequences of not performing it, and the work experience of past incumbents, among others.  Importantly for employers, the Court explained that “we must give greatest weight to the ‘employer’s judgment.’”  The Court further concluded that “[a]n employee’s unsupported testimony that she could perform her job functions from home” is insufficient to avoid summary judgment.

With respect to the specific position at issue, the Court reviewed contemporary emails from DOJ personnel and consistent testimony of Ms. Credeur’s supervisors to conclude that regular attendance in the office was an essential function of the litigation attorney job, that Ms. Credeur’s continued absence from the workplace created significant problems for her department and prevented her from executing her work effectively and efficiently, and that her request to work from home on an open-ended basis was not reasonable.

Takeaways for Employers

The Fifth Circuit’s decision joins an increasing number of courts holding that regular workplace attendance is an essential function. This decision also establishes that requests for unlimited or open-ended telecommuting in most cases is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  In addition, the decision emphasizes that courts must give weight to the employer’s own judgment about what constitutes an essential job function.  While helpful, employers will not be able to take full advantage of the ruling unless they have accurate, up-to-date job descriptions that identify the essential functions of the job—including factors requiring regular attendance at the workplace.  Take this opportunity to examine and update your job descriptions.

 

By Louisa Johnson and Salomon Laguerre

Synopsis:  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that an employer had done nothing wrong when it (i) filled the plaintiff’s position during his leave, (ii) restored the plaintiff to a different, but equivalent, position upon his return, and (iii) separated the plaintiff six weeks later as part of a reduction in force.

A recurring issue for employers is whether to fill an employee’s position while that employee is absent on a leave covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and, if so, what position can be offered to the employee upon return to work that will satisfy the “equivalent position” alternative requirement under the FMLA. In a recently published opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has provided some helpful guidance.

In Gary Waag v. Sotera Defense Solutions, Inc., No. 15-2521 (4th Cir. May 16, 2017),  the employer, a defense contractor, was selected by the U.S. Army as one of several non-exclusive prime contractors that could bid on task orders for a software solutions program.  When it was selected but before it won any task orders, the employer made the plaintiff the program manager.  Because there were no immediate task orders to bid on, the plaintiff’s first job was not program management but instead business development—building relationships with the government to best position the company to win work when there were tasks orders to bid on.

A few weeks after the plaintiff began his new role, he injured his hand and notified his employer that he would need to be absent from work for two to three months. The employer notified the plaintiff that it needed to make another employee the program manager in the plaintiff’s absence.  When the plaintiff asked what that would mean for his role upon return to work, the employer was careful to say that it was important to have someone in the program manager role in the interim to get the team up and running, and that it would “figure out what roles work best for all involved” once the plaintiff returned from leave.

The program never left the business development stage during the plaintiff’s leave because there were no task orders to bid upon at the time. Upon the plaintiff’s return, the employer placed the plaintiff in a new role to help grow a different government contract program where there were actually task orders to be bid upon.  Unfortunately, the employer did not win those bids.  Six weeks after the plaintiff’s return to work, the plaintiff’s was fired as part of a reduction in force caused by a federal budget sequestration that drastically decreased the employer’s government work and its revenue.  The program manager who had filled the plaintiff’s role during his leave was not part of the reduction in force not because he held the plaintiff’s former program manager role but because he was a critical member of other programs that were generating revenue.

The plaintiff sued for purported interference with his FMLA rights because he was not restored to his original position after his leave, he did not believe his post-leave job was an equivalent position, and he believed his new job had been a sham role that was pre-selected for the lay-offs. He also argued that his termination was in retaliation for taking leave.  The trial court ruled in the employer’s favor on all counts, and the plaintiff appealed.

In upholding the trial court’s ruling, the Fourth Circuit noted that, under the FMLA, the employer can restore an employee either to his original position or to an equivalent position. The FMLA does not indicate a preference for one option over the other, “and it does not require an employer to hold open an employee’s original position while that employee is on leave.”

The Fourth Circuit also agreed with the trial court that the plaintiff’s new position was “equivalent” to his pre-leave position because the plaintiff continued to receive his same salary of $189,000.00 and was still eligible for bonuses; continued to enjoy the same health benefits; had the same worksite; held the same job title (Senior Director); still reported to a Vice President; and had the same primary duty of business development in both roles.

The plaintiff pointed to differences in job duties of the two positions that would have existed had the employer won a task order. The Fourth Circuit did not find such differences to be material because no task orders were won before or after plaintiff’s leave that would have necessitated the plaintiff performing these additional, conditional duties. In addition, while the plaintiff contended that he was no longer part of the “core management group” as he had been before leave, the Court found that a “loss of prestige” was a “de minimis” difference that did not prevent the pre- and post-leave jobs from being equivalent.

Finally, the Fourth Circuit agreed that a mere six weeks between the plaintiff’s return from leave and employment termination may be sufficient temporal proximity to show causation for a retaliation claim. Nonetheless, the plaintiff had failed to present any evidence that the employer’s reason for the plaintiff’s separation—the disastrous effect of the federal budget sequestration on the programs on which the plaintiff had worked—was a pretext for retaliation.  In so ruling, the Fourth Circuit noted that the plaintiff had the burden of proving pretext, rather than the employer having the burden of proving that the plaintiff would have been fired even if he had not taken leave, because the employer did not fire the plaintiff while on leave.  Instead, the employer returned the plaintiff to an equivalent position after leave that the employer had shown was not slated for lay-offs at the time of the plaintiff’s return from leave.

The key takeaways from this case are as follows: (1) while employers should, when possible, keep an employee’s position open during his or her leave, employers do not have an obligation to do so under the FMLA, although the analysis may be different when the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) applies as well; (2) if an employer reinstates an employee to an equivalent position, the FMLA requires the post-leave position to be “virtually identical” to the prior position in terms of pay, benefits, status, privileges, and working conditions and substantially equivalent in terms of skill, effort, responsibility, and authority; (3) even if communications with an employee during leave do not have the intended effect of managing the employee’s expectations about post-leave employment, such communications can help in the defense of litigation; and (4) restoring an employee post-leave to an equivalent position when his or her job has been filled in the interim will usually be a more defensible approach than firing the employee while on leave.