As technology changes, courts have increasingly accepted disabled employees’ arguments that they can remotely perform the essential functions of their jobs. Therefore, telecommuting may be recognized as a form of required reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates how far courts have evolved in their willingness to consider telecommuting as a required accommodation.
In Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div., the plaintiff was an in-house attorney who began experiencing pregnancy complications. She requested that she be allowed to work from home or the hospital for the 10-week remainder of her pregnancy. Her employer denied this request, noting that the essential functions of her job and confidentiality issues required her to be able to personally interact with co-workers. Instead, the utility offered sick leave and short-term disability for the remainder of her pregnancy. She sued, claiming failure to accommodate under the ADA.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The court rejected the employer’s arguments because (1) it had successfully allowed the plaintiff to telecommute in the past following neck surgery, and (2) the job description used to demonstrate the essential functions was based on information solicited 20 years ago and did not reflect current job needs or current technology. The Sixth Circuit distinguished its prior decisions rejecting telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation, again noting that technology has changed since those decisions, allowing employees to do more from remote locations.
This case contains several lessons for employers. First, by allowing telecommuting in other situations, the employer weakened its argument that it was unreasonable to do so in this case. Second, reliance on old job descriptions undercut the employer’s assertions about the job’s essential functions. As technology changes, employers need to remain flexible with their evaluations of what is and what is not reasonable to assist disabled workers.