Why it matters

Affirming a jury verdict, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found that ten weeks of telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation for a pregnant lawyer put on bed rest. Due to complications from pregnancy, in-house counsel Andrea Mosby-Meachem was put on bed rest. Pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she requested to work from home during that period. Memphis Light, Gas & Water denied the request, taking the position that in-person attendance was an essential function of her job. Mosby-Meachem sued, and a jury awarded her $92,000 in compensatory damages on her claim of disability discrimination. The employer appealed, but the federal appellate panel upheld the verdict. The plaintiff presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that in-person attendance was not an essential function of her job for the ten-week period she requested to work from home, the court said.

Detailed discussion

An attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLG&W), Andrea Mosby-Meachem focused primarily on the areas of labor, employment and workers’ compensation.

When a new general counsel was hired at the company, she sent an email to all the lawyers in the legal department outlining her policy that the attorneys should be present in the office for the entire workday. If a midday meeting occurred at another location, lawyers were still expected to return to the office, she explained. However, in practice, employees often telecommuted, with Mosby-Meachem doing so for two weeks while recovering from neck surgery.

In 2013, Mosby-Meachem’s doctors expressed concerns during the 23rd week of her pregnancy and put her on bed rest for approximately ten weeks. She informed her supervisor and the human resources department of the diagnosis and then made an official accommodation request pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Mosby-Meachem asked that she be permitted to work from a bed either within the hospital or her home for the ten-week period, submitting documentation in support of her request.

MLG&W assembled an ADA Committee, conducted a phone conference with Mosby-Meachem and denied the request despite her assurances that she could perform her job remotely. In a letter, the employer stated the denial was based on the determination that physical presence was an essential function of Mosby-Meachem’s job and that teleworking created concerns about confidentiality.

Mosby-Meachem later filed suit alleging failure to accommodate and retaliation in violation of the ADA as well as state law claims. At trial, the jury returned a verdict for Mosby-Meachem on her discrimination claims, awarding her $92,000 in compensatory damages. Jurors sided with the employer on the ADA retaliation and state law claims.

The employer appealed, moving for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial. The jury lacked a legally sufficient basis to find that the plaintiff could have effectively performed all the essential functions of her job with her requested accommodation, MLG&W argued.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the jury verdict. While the employer was correct that some evidence showed in-person attendance was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job, Mosby-Meachem proffered other evidence at trial from which a jury could reasonably conclude that she was otherwise qualified to perform her job from home for ten weeks without being physically present in the office, the court said.

In addition to Mosby-Meachem herself, several MLG&W attorneys as well as outside counsel who worked with the plaintiff testified that they felt she could perform all essential functions during the ten-week period working from home, the court said.

Mosby-Meachem also challenged the strength of the employer’s evidence that physical attendance was necessary by establishing that she had never tried a case in court nor taken depositions of witnesses, two of the functions listed in her job description. The job description itself was based on a 20-year-old questionnaire that did not reflect changes in the job that have resulted from technological advancements, the plaintiff also told jurors.

“Given all the evidence presented by Mosby-Meachem that both undermined MLG&W’s evidence and independently supported a finding that she could perform the essential functions of her job remotely for ten weeks, a rational jury could find that she was a qualified employee and that working remotely for ten weeks was a reasonable accommodation,” the court wrote.

Sixth Circuit precedent has left open the possibility of teleworking as a reasonable accommodation, particularly for a finite period, the panel noted, adding that determining what constitutes an essential function “is highly fact specific.”

The plaintiff also presented evidence that MLG&W failed to engage in an interactive process. Testimony at trial revealed the employer had already determined that it was not willing to permit Mosby-Meachem to work remotely and that the members of the ADA Committee understood they were to refuse any telecommuting requests.

Affirming the verdict, the panel denied the employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial.

To read the opinion in Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, click here.