In a recent decision handed down by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, No. 17-5483 (6th Cir. 2018), the Court held that in certain circumstances telecommuting may constitute a reasonable accommodation.
Andrea Mosby-Meachem was hired by Memphis Light in 2005 as an in-house labor, employment and workers’ compensation attorney. In 2011, the General Counsel for Memphis Light issued a written policy, which stated her expectations that her staff members were to work in the office. The Company, however, did not have a formal, written policy regarding telecommuting, some employees often telecommuted, and in 2012 Mosby-Meachem was allowed to work from home for two weeks while recovering from neck surgery.
In early January 2013, Mosby-Meachem was in her 23rd week of pregnancy when her doctor ordered her on 10-weeks of bed rest. She requested to work from home, but approximately three weeks later an ADA committee formed by Memphis Light denied her request on the basis that her physical presence in the office was an essential job function, and because of concerns regarding the confidentiality of her work. Significantly, Mosby-Meachem worked from home while her request was being considered and until it was denied, as no one from Memphis Light told her to stop working.
Mosby-Meachem brought claims of pregnancy discrimination under Tennessee law, and failure to accommodate and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Memphis Light’s motion for summary judgment was denied and a jury subsequently awarded Mosby-Mecheam $92,000 in compensatory damages for disability discrimination, but it denied her claims of pregnancy discrimination and retaliation. The trial court also awarded her $18,184.32 in back pay.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit noted that determining essential job functions was highly fact specific, and that while Memphis Light had produced several pieces of evidence to support the need for in-person attendance, Mosby-Meachem had demonstrated that she could and had performed the essential functions of her job remotely, that Memphis Light’s job description was 20-years old and did not reflect changes in technology, and that Memphis Light had not engaged in the interactive process regarding Mosby-Meachem’s accommodation request. The 6th Circuit accordingly affirmed the jury’s verdict. In upholding the verdict, the 6th Circuit found that the case was distinguishable from prior precedent (Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services, LLC, No. 16-6078 (6th Cir. 2017) and EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. 2014), where plaintiffs either had requested to telecommute indefinitely, they had not previously telecommuted, or being in the workplace truly was an essential job function given the plaintiff’s performance issues or the need to be logged into a computer at the work place in order to receive customer telephone calls.
Some takeaways from this decision are that an employer needs to:
- Review every accommodation request on an individualized, case-by-case basis;
- Engage in the interactive process with the employee making the request;
- Analyze the essential functions of the position in issue to determine if they can be (or have been) performed with the requested accommodation; and
- Review and update job descriptions on a regular basis.