6th Circuit Dismisses ADA Telework Claim

By Rosemarie Lally, J.D. June 9, 2020
man grabbing right shoulder in pain

​An injured employee's refusal to provide his employer with medical documentation supporting his request to work from home precludes his failure-to-accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff suffered a serious shoulder injury while employed by Ascena Retail Group Inc. He claimed to have injured his shoulder while moving laptops in December 2012. He had sought medical treatment for shoulder pain in October 2012, however, and did not report it as a workplace injury until May 2013.

In early 2013, the plaintiff requested to work from home three days a week. At that time, and throughout 2013, his supervisor asked for medical documentation to support his requested accommodation. The supervisor allowed the plaintiff to arrive late or leave early for medical appointments and provided flexible scheduling.

The plaintiff eventually provided medical documentation in October 2013, but the physician said only that the plaintiff would need intermittent breaks and should not lift more than 10 pounds. The documentation did not mention a need to work from home; the supervisor again denied the requested accommodation.

When the plaintiff observed that other employees were permitted to telework, the supervisor said his decision to accommodate other employees but not the plaintiff had nothing to do with the plaintiff's injury. The following day, the plaintiff was told he could not transfer to another position or work from home. The plaintiff reported disability discrimination and began exploring the possibility of taking a leave of absence.

Ultimately, the plaintiff resigned rather than requesting leave, asserting that Ascena had not provided professional training or appreciated his work. Ascena followed up on his potential leave of absence even after the resignation, but the plaintiff did not respond. He sued the company in September 2016. The district court granted summary judgment to Ascena.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Handle an Employee's Request for an ADA Accommodation]

On appeal, the 6th Circuit affirmed the lower court's ruling.

"Requested accommodations are reasonable only if they 'address a key obstacle preventing the employee from performing a necessary function of his job,' " the court said. The plaintiff didn't explain how working from home was vital to his performance of a necessary job function.

An employer is obligated to negotiate an accommodation that allows the employee with a disability to work despite the individual's limitations but is not bound by the employee's requested accommodation. A "delay in providing a reasonable accommodation is not always actionable," the court said, particularly when the employee has failed to provide the requested documentation.

The plaintiff neither showed his request was reasonable nor provided medical documentation supporting the accommodation's necessity. Noting that he never explained why working from home only three days per week would help him perform his job while injured, the court said "[n]ow he tells us that he sought to avoid transporting heavy laptops by requesting a work-from-home accommodation." Employees "cannot justify accommodation for the first time during litigation, let alone on appeal," the 6th Circuit said.

"In sum, [the plaintiff] failed to show that working from home related to his disability; never provided satisfactory documentation to Ascena; and resigned before the parties agreed on [his] ultimate accommodation," the court held. "Each shortcoming provides grounds to deny his claim."

Tchankpa v. Ascena Retail Group Inc., 6th Cir., No. 19-3291 (March 6, 2020).

Professional Pointer: While telework isn't always required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, it may be more commonly accepted as an accommodation after its widespread use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, employees with disabilities are still likely to have to provide requested medical documentation to secure telework as an ADA accommodation.

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer based in Washington, D.C.



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