Why it matters

As the position held by the plaintiff required physical presence in the office—something that she was unable to do because of her fibromyalgia—she was not a "qualified individual" subject to the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. A full-time purchasing agent for the city of Tallahassee, the plaintiff was responsible for working directly with internal city department representatives and vendors, many of whom often arrived unannounced at the office. After her diagnosis with fibromyalgia, she requested and was granted several accommodations (including a change in office location and dress code), but still missed significant amounts of work. She then asked for permission to telecommute, but the city denied her request, determining that full-time, regular attendance was an essential function of the job. She took early retirement and filed an ADA lawsuit. Affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Eleventh Circuit agreed that the plaintiff was not a "qualified individual" because she could not perform an essential function of her job with regular, full-time attendance in the office. Further, because her request to telecommute was not a reasonable accommodation, the plaintiff was unable to identify a material adverse action to support her retaliation claim, the court concluded.

Detailed discussion

Janet Garrison began working for the city of Tallahassee, Florida as a full-time purchasing agent in 2003. Part of her job involved working directly with internal department representatives, both in person and over the phone, as well as interacting with outside vendors, some of whom would arrive unannounced to the office for assistance. Garrison was also responsible for conducting vendor training sessions and serving on multiple committees for the selection of vendors.

In 2006 Garrison was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Over the next six years she requested and was granted a number of reasonable accommodations by the city, including permission to wear comfortable clothes and noise-cancelling headphones, relocating her office closer to a restroom and her parking space closer to the building, and allowing a modified work schedule.

However, Garrison continued to miss significant amounts of work due to sporadic, unplanned absences and on average worked only 30.5 hours per week instead of her scheduled 40 hours. In 2013 Garrison requested that the city allow her to telecommute during flare-ups of her condition. City representatives discussed the request but expressed concern about her ability to interact with vendors if she were permitted to telecommute.

The city concluded that full-time, regular attendance was an essential function of Garrison's job and denied her request to telecommute. Instead, the city offered her the option of a citywide three-month job search for a position whose essential functions Garrison could perform.

Garrison took early retirement and then filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging it discriminated against her by not providing her with a reasonable accommodation and retaliated against her based on her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

To be a "qualified individual" subject to the protections of the statute, a plaintiff must show that she is someone who can perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation, the court explained. Whether a function is "essential" is determined on a case-by-case basis, including consideration of the employer's judgment about the essential functions of a position and any written descriptions the employer prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the position.

In addition to giving the city's judgment that Garrison's physical presence in the office during regular business hours was an essential function of her position "substantial weight," the court noted the plaintiff herself testified that her job required her to communicate regularly—both in person and over the phone—with internal department representatives and with external vendors, some of whom arrived at the office without prior notice.

"In light of this evidence, the district court concluded correctly that Garrison's position was customer-service oriented and that being physically present in the office during regular business hours was an essential function of Garrison's job," the federal appellate panel wrote. Garrison provided no evidence that other similarly situated purchasing agents were permitted to telecommute or work outside regular business hours, nor did she identify a single employee who was permitted to telecommute on the kind of regular, unscheduled, and long-term basis that Garrison had requested, the court added.

"Garrison has identified no reasonable accommodation that would have allowed her to perform the essential functions of her job," the Eleventh Circuit said. "Garrison has, thus, failed to establish that she was a 'qualified individual' for purposes of stating a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA."

The plaintiff's retaliation claim fell as well, as she failed to identify a material adverse action taken against her. "Because Garrison's requests to telecommute and to work outside regular business hours were no reasonable accommodations, the city's refusal to grant Garrison's requests constituted no material adverse action," the panel wrote, affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer.

To read the opinion in Garrison v. City of Tallahassee, click here.