Federal Court Agrees that Refusal to Telecommute did not Violate ADA
November 21, 2016
After finding that the Employee’s presence at the office during regular hours was an essential function of her position and her inability to perform that function meant she was not a "qualified individual", a federal appeals court has dismissed the Employee’s claim that the Employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The Employee was a full-time purchasing agent and part of her job included working directly with internal department representatives and with outside vendors, some of whom would arrive unannounced at the office for assistance. In 2006, the Employee was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and began missing significant amounts of work. Between 2007 and 2013, the Employee requested and was granted a number of accommodations, including being allowed to wear comfortable clothing, relocating to an office close to the bathroom, being assigned a parking spot close to the building, and having signs posted in the office requesting that others refrain from spraying fragrances. The Employee was also allowed to work a modified schedule. On average, the Employee worked only 30.5 of her scheduled 40 hours per week. In July 2013, the Employee requested that she be permitted to telecommute during "flare-ups" of her condition and to work "as needed" after hours to make up time missed due to absences.
The Employer discussed her requests and concerns were expressed about her poor attendance despite her flexible schedule and about her ability to interact with vendors if she was permitted to telecommute. The Employer concluded that full-time regular attendance was an essential function of the Employee’s job and, as a result, denied her request to telecommute. It instead offered her the option of a company-wide, three-month job search. The Employer searched for vacant positions for the Employee but before the end of the three-month period, the Employee notified the Employer that she was taking an early retirement, effective immediately.
The Court agreed with the lower court that the Employee was unable to perform an essential function of her job—full-time physical attendance. Consequently, she was not a "qualified individual." The Court noted that it accorded "substantial weight" to the Employer’s decision on essential functions and that the Employee’s testimony established that her job required her to communicate regularly in person and over the phone with internal department representatives and external vendors, some of whom dropped by without prior notice. With this in mind, it was clear that being physically present in the office during regular business hours was essential to her job. Furthermore, there was no evidence that other purchasing agents were permitted to telecommute or to work outside regular business hours and the Employee had not identified any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed her to perform the essential functions of her job.