City Lawfully Denied Request to Telecommute as Accommodation

 

By Jennifer L. Gokenbach May 7, 2019
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​It is not unreasonable for an employer to deny an employee's request to work from home if the employee's medical limitations do not prevent him or her from going to the workplace, and the job description requires work in the office, according to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The city of Oak Park Heights, Minn., employed the plaintiff for more than 15 years. In April 2014, the plaintiff was working as the senior accountant for the city when he contracted Fournier's gangrene, a type of necrotizing fasciitis—a rare, flesh-eating infection. The plaintiff underwent three lifesaving surgeries, spent nearly five months in the hospital, and was left with long-term injuries, including bilateral leg weakness that the employee claimed left him unable to drive his car or climb stairs without assistance.

The city granted the plaintiff leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), plus an additional 90 days of unpaid leave under a city ordinance. In September 2014, the city sent the plaintiff an updated job description and requested a medical certification regarding his ability to perform the essential functions of his job so that he could return to work. The plaintiff responded with a series of doctor's notes stating that he might be able to return to work in January 2015.

In November 2014, the city eliminated the senior accountant position because its duties had been absorbed by other employees. In December 2014, the city met with the plaintiff to advise him that the job had been eliminated and offered him two options: accept a utility billing clerk/accounting technician position at a lower salary or a severance package. The plaintiff refused to accept either option and complained that he was being discriminated against because of his disability.

By February 2015, the plaintiff still had not returned to work, and the city sent him a letter asking him to describe any reasonable accommodations he might need to perform the essential functions of the new position. The letter also stated that he would need to return to work by April 1, or he would be discharged. The plaintiff responded with a letter from his attorney outlining his restrictions, desire to be reinstated to his original position and requested accommodation to work from home. The plaintiff also provided a report from his physician, who restricted the plaintiff to four-hour workdays with some limitations. Significantly, however, the physician did not limit the plaintiff to working from home.

The city considered the plaintiff's requests for reasonable accommodations and offered to allow the plaintiff to work at City Hall four hours per day. The plaintiff did not accept the city's offered accommodation and instead made multiple requests through his attorney to meet with his employer to further engage in the interactive process. On April 29, 2015, approximately one year after the plaintiff initially took a medical leave of absence, the city fired the plaintiff.

He sued, claiming the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, and the 8th Circuit affirmed.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]

The 8th Circuit held that the plaintiff was not entitled to return to his original position because he did not return to work prior to the expiration of his FMLA leave. The court also held that the plaintiff's request to work from home was not a reasonable accommodation in light of the evidence that City Hall met the ADA's standards of accessibility for people with disabilities, and some of the job functions of the plaintiff's new job could not be performed remotely. Moreover, the plaintiff's own medical restrictions did not state that he must work from home.

In addition, the 8th Circuit held that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Enforcement Guidance document was not binding authority. The document stated that, as a reasonable accommodation, an employer is required to hold open the original job of an employee who has been granted leave, unless the employer can demonstrate that holding open the position would impose an undue hardship.

Brunckhorst v. City of Oak Park Heights, 8th Cir., No. 17-3238 (Feb. 4, 2019), petition for rehearing by panel denied (March 21, 2019).

Professional Pointer: In some circumstances, a reasonable accommodation might be to allow an employee to work from home. But if the employee's limitations do not prevent him or her from going to work, and the job description requires some work that must be performed at the workplace, it is not unreasonable to refuse an employee's request to work from home.

Jennifer L. Gokenbach is an attorney with Gokenbach Law LLC, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Denver.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

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