Another federal circuit court of appeals recently rejected the argument that telecommuting was required as a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals made waves in 2014 when it concluded that telecommuting was required as a reasonable accommodation for an employee. Then in early 2015, the Sixth Circuit reversed its previous holding through an en banc review and concluded that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation. In that decision, the Sixth Circuit held that “regularly attending work on-site is essential to most jobs, especially the interactive ones.”
In Doak v. Johnson, the D.C. Circuit reached a similar conclusion to the Sixth Circuit’s en banc analysis. No. 14-5053 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 18, 2015). In Doak, the plaintiff worked as a program analyst, whose job duties included monitoring the budget, making procurement requests, and attending in-person meetings with her co-workers. The plaintiff also suffered from hypothyroidism, depression, and migraines that caused her to miss a significant amount of work on an unpredictable basis. After exhausting her FMLA leave, the plaintiff requested various accommodations, including a late start-time of 11:00 a.m. (everyone else started between 6:00 and 8:00 a.m.) and telecommuting. The employer denied the late start-time and telecommuting requests on the grounds that the plaintiff’s position required her to interact frequently with various co-workers and that the accommodations did not allow her to perform those job functions. Later, the employer terminated the plaintiff due to her ongoing inability to work a regular schedule, and the employee sued.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the employer that the plaintiff’s proposed accommodations would not enable her to perform the essential functions of her job – particularly, her ability to be “present in the office to participate in interactive, on-site meetings during normal business hours and on a regular basis.” The court found that there was strong evidence that being present during regular working hours was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job and that the plaintiff did not present any evidence to the contrary. As a result, the court upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims on summary judgment.
Takeaway: Although telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee in certain circumstances, it is generally not a reasonable accommodation when in-person attendance is an essential function of the employee’s job.