Court Says Question of Disability Accommodation Should Go to Jury

By D.M. Fera August 15, 2023

Takeaway: Employers should be aware that a federal court said the determination of whether a requested accommodation, namely working from home, is a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a question of fact for a jury to decide. 

​A former employee of a nonprofit hospital presented a U.S. District Court with what it called "factual issues" concerning the essential duties of her position and the reasonableness of the employer's proffered accommodation. Accordingly, summary judgment was not warranted on the plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claims against the defendant, KidsPeace Corp., under either the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). But the court did dismiss the plaintiff's ADA and PHRA disability discrimination claims, as well as her ADA, PHRA and federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation claims.

KidsPeace Corp. is a private charity that runs a psychiatric hospital in Orefield, Pa., and other treatment and educational programs for children and young adults. KidsPeace employed the plaintiff in March 2017 as the hospital's director of social services.

During the period of employment, the plaintiff's supervisor approved a flexible schedule for her that had occasional, intermittent work-from-home periods, including: 1) for three months due to injuries related to an automobile accident; 2) for a period of at least three months because of injuries related to a workers' compensation claim; and 3) in a hybrid capacity (two days remotely and three days at the hospital) because of pregnancy.

The plaintiff notified KidsPeace of her pregnancy in early 2021 and subsequently requested workplace accommodations because the pregnancy was high-risk. KidsPeace granted the plaintiff's request to work from home during part of her pregnancy. In August 2021, the plaintiff went into premature labor. KidsPeace granted her request for FMLA leave beginning Aug. 9, 2021, and ending Oct. 29, 2021.

After her leave, the plaintiff and KidsPeace engaged in back-and-forth discussions about accommodations. On Jan. 5, 2022, KidsPeace responded to the plaintiff's latest accommodation request, which included a request for remote work. KidsPeace offered the plaintiff a modified and flexible work schedule and public transit reimbursements—but the offer did not include working from home, and the reasons why were stated.

The plaintiff resigned in January 2022. She sued KidsPeace in June 2022, alleging violations of the ADA for failure to accommodate, disability discrimination resulting in constructive discharge, and retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodations. She also brought PHRA claims identical to those under the ADA and retaliation claims under the FMLA. KidsPeace moved for summary judgment on all claims.

Under the ADA, an employer has a duty to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities. The court said that to prevail in a case alleging ADA disability discrimination for a failure to accommodate, the plaintiff needs to establish that she is a person with a disability; is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and as a result of the discrimination, suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision.

The court said the plaintiff "raises factual issues concerning the essential duties of her position and the reasonableness of KidsPeace's proffered accommodation. Viewing the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, a jury could reasonably conclude KidsPeace's proffered accommodation was not reasonable." The court further concluded that "even if KidsPeace acted in good faith, it is for the jury to decide whether its proposed accommodations not involving remote work would have been a reasonable accommodation."

The court said summary judgment was thus not warranted on the plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate ADA and PHRA claims.

Regarding the plaintiff's disability discrimination claims under the ADA and PHRA, which were based on theories of "actual/perceived/record of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate," the court found that summary judgment was warranted for KidsPeace because the plaintiff had not established that she suffered an otherwise adverse employment decision as a result of discrimination.

The court also dismissed the plaintiff's retaliation claims, finding she had not demonstrated direct evidence of retaliation, nor had she established the elements of a prima facie case under the FMLA, ADA or PHRA. Furthermore, according to the court, the plaintiff had not shown a causal connection between her request for accommodation and KidsPeace's denial of her requested accommodation. Rather, "the record reflects KidsPeace consistently engaged" the plaintiff in discussions "concerning her continued accommodation requests," and the company granted certain previous requests.

Spratley v. KidsPeace Corp., d/b/a KidsPeace Hospital, E.D. Pa., No. 5:22-cv-02411 (April 19, 2023).

D.M. Fera is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.


HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.