Employer Didn’t Have to Offer Remote Work as an Accommodation

By Joanne Deschenaux September 21, 2018
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A civil transportation engineer could not proceed with his claim that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) did not reasonably accommodate his depression and anxiety when it refused to allow him to work part time from home, the California Court of Appeal ruled.

The worker's failure to provide the employer with requested medical information about his ability to perform his essential job functions prevented the lawsuit from going forward, the court said. Furthermore, even though other employees worked part time from home, those employees had different job duties and different work-performance records, and an employer is not required to allow an employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation, the court said. 

The plaintiff claimed that he had a number of health conditions, including chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression. He said his health conditions affected his ability to sleep and therefore made it hard to concentrate, handle stress or interact with others.      

After the plaintiff began reporting to a new supervisor, she observed that he often came in late and left work early. The plaintiff told the supervisor that he had an arrangement with his previous manager allowing him to come and go as he pleased. The supervisor found no record of this arrangement and instructed the plaintiff to conform to a full-time working schedule. According to the plaintiff, working onsite for eight hours a day caused his health to decline, because he was unable to adjust his schedule on the days following the nights when he didn't sleep well.  

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

The plaintiff completed the employer's reasonable-accommodation request forms and asked that he be allowed to work from home three days a week because he was distracted in the office. He also asked for a secluded workspace at the office for the two days he was there.

The plaintiff's psychiatrist wrote a letter to the company supporting the accommodation request. The psychiatrist wrote that the plaintiff suffered from depression and anxiety and that sitting in a communal office space impaired his concentration.

According to the plaintiff's supervisor, the psychiatrist's information was insufficient for Caltrans to complete its evaluation of the plaintiff's accommodation request. She told the plaintiff that she needed more information about which essential job functions he could perform in a communal office setting and which functions he couldn't. She was considering changing the plaintiff's duties or moving his cubicle to another location rather than letting him work from home.

The plaintiff's supervisor told him that she needed answers to her questions from his psychiatrist, but the plaintiff didn't provide the answers. Therefore, Caltrans placed him on a part-time work schedule.

The plaintiff sued Caltrans for failure to accommodate his disability in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), among other claims. The trial court granted Caltran's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the claim before trial. The plaintiff appealed.  

Failure to Reasonably Accommodate

FEHA makes it unlawful for an employer to fail to make reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental disability of an employee.

The court noted that under FEHA, an employer is not required to choose the best accommodation or the specific accommodation the employee seeks. Instead, the court said, the employer has discretion to choose between effective accommodations.

Further, the court said, when an employee seeks an accommodation for a disability, the employer is permitted to "inquire into the ability of the employee to perform job-related functions."  

An employee has an obligation to cooperate in good faith with the employer and is required to respond to an employer's request for additional information. An employee's failure to do so will prevent him or her from pursuing a reasonable accommodation claim, the court explained.  

The fact that Caltrans allowed other employees to work from home was irrelevant because those employees had different responsibilities and performance records, the court said. An employer is not required to allow an employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation, the appeals court concluded, affirming the trial court's order dismissing the claim.

Molaei v. State of Cal. Dept. of Transportation, Calif. Ct. App., No. B276510 (Sept. 13, 2018).

Professional Pointer: If an employee requests telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation, but it would not be in the employer's best interest, the employer should consider other accommodations and thoroughly document why it believes that telecommuting would not work.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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