After a recent court opinion, Michigan companies will need to carefully re-evaluate whether allowing an employee the opportunity to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).
The case, Mosby-Meachem v Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, involved an in-house attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division. She was denied a request to work from home for ten weeks while she was on bedrest due to complications from pregnancy.
Telecommuting where attendance was not essential function job function.
Memphis Light had a job description for the attorney position. However, “attendance” was not an essential function of the job. Also, Memphis Light had no formal telecommuting policy. But the evidence showed in practice employees often telecommuted. Prior to her pregnancy, plaintiff had worked from home for two weeks while recovering from neck surgery.
In January 2013 during her 23rd week of pregnancy, plaintiff’s doctors discovered a problem, which required hospitalization and bed rest. On January 7, 2013, plaintiff made a request for an accommodation to work remotely (either at the hospital or at home) for 10 weeks. Her request, however, was denied on January 30, 2013. Memphis Light asserted a “physical presence was an essential function of [plaintiff’s] job, and teleworking created concerns about maintaining confidentiality. But from the time of her request on January 7 until she received the denial letter on January 30, plaintiff continued to perform her work remotely, and no one from Memphis Light ever told her to stop working during this time.
Jury Finds Employer Violated ADA
F0llowing trial, a jury found in favor of plaintiff on her claim for disability discrimination and awarded her compensatory damages. The district court also granted Mosby-Meachem’s motion for equitable relief and awarded her backpay for the period in which Memphis Light did not permit her to telework.
Memphis Light moved for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial, asserting that the evidence produced at trial and binding Sixth Circuit precedent precluded any reasonable jury from determining plaintiff was a qualified individual while on bedrest because in-person attendance was an essential function of her job. The district court denied the motion and Memphis Light appealed.
But this appeal also failed because plaintiff produced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that physical attendance was not an essential function of her job for the 10-week period in which she requested to telework and the Sixth Circuit precedent relied upon by Memphis Light materially differed from the facts.
As to the first point about evidence, the Court reasoned,
… while [Memphis Light] is correct that there is some evidence showing that inperson attendance was an essential function of Mosby-Meachem’s job, Mosby-Meachem proffered other evidence at trial, including testimony from coworkers, from which a jury could reasonably conclude that she was otherwise qualified to perform her job from home for ten weeks without being physically present in the office.
As to the Sixth Circuit precedent, Memphis Light pinned its hopes on E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co. Our blog discussed this decision when it first came out in 2015 (Is Telecommuting a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Americans with Disabilities Act?). In that case, the Court of Appeals concluded, “[r]egular, in-person attendance is an essential function—and a prerequisite to essential functions—of most jobs ….” In discussing the Ford case, we specifically cautioned that the “opinion did not rule out telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation in all cases.” And here, the Court reached the same assessment in finding against Memphis Light. The Court also found Memphis Light’s reliance on another telecommuting case involving ADA accommodation was misplaced.
ADA, Leave, and Telecommuting as Reasonable Accommodations
This decision significantly complicates leave and accommodation issues for employers. This is especially true as technology makes it increasingly easy to work remotely without sacrificing productivity or security. Accordingly, the decision and its implications should be understood by your HR professionals. Here are a few points to consider:
First, before this opinion, a string of cases relied upon by Memphis Light suggested plaintiffs would find it difficult to win an ADA claim based on telecommuting as an accommodation. But this case makes clear employers can’t dismiss telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation.
Second, your company’s job descriptions will be a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to whether telecommunicating may be a reasonable accommodation. On this point, Memphis Light’s job description on which it relied upon was based on a 20-year-old questionnaire that did not reflect changes in the job that have resulted from technological advancements since that time.
Third, plaintiff had worked for Memphis Light for about 8 years when she made her request for an accommodation. There was no indication from the opinion that plaintiff’s work was deficient. And she was simply looking for a 10-week accommodation to work remotely due to pregnancy complications. So unless there was more going on behind the scenes, the decision to deny the accommodation and terminate came across as short-sighted.