7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Failure to Accommodate Claim
On January 14, 2021, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a failure to accommodate lawsuit under the federal Rehabilitation Act. Conners v. Robert Wilke, No. 19-2426 (7th Cir. Jan. 14, 2021). The plaintiff worked as a nurse at a VA hospital. Her job duties included treating and observing patients, giving immunizations, managing the front desk, teaching classes, and filling out paperwork. After she was involved in an automobile accident, her injuries impeded her ability to perform most of her nursing duties. Her supervisor initially permitted her to retain her position, but reduced her job responsibilities to only teaching and paperwork. Subsequently, the VA concluded that she could not perform the essential duties of her position, even with reasonable accommodations, and it terminated her employment.
She filed a lawsuit against the VA under the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that it failed to accommodate her disability. The Rehabilitation Act is the federal public sector equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). To establish a failure to accommodate claim, a plaintiff must first prove that she was a qualified individual with a disability when she was terminated. This means that she was capable of performing the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation. An employer covered by the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act may be liable for disability discrimination if it fails to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee with a disability, unless the employer can show that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business. The duty to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee may require a reassignment to a vacant position. The elements of a claim for failure to accommodate an employee’s disability are: (1) the employee was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer was aware of the disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the disability. It the plaintiff establishes these elements, the employer must prove that the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship. The plaintiff lost her case because the courts found that she was not a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA defines a qualified individual as one who can perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation. As to the question of what are an employee’s essential job functions, courts consider, among other factors, the employer’s judgment and written job descriptions. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that the undisputed evidence demonstrated that it was impossible for the plaintiff to perform the essential duties of her job, even with accommodations, due to her physical limitations.
7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Failure-to-Accommodate Claim
On August 15, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff-employee alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act for failure to accommodate. Yochim v. Carson, Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, No. 8-3670 (7th Cir. 8/15/2019). The plaintiff worked in the legal department of HUD. For years, she took advantage of its flexible and progressive policy permitting employees to work from home several days per week. After undergoing surgery, she requested time off and permission to work from home. HUD agreed and allowed her time to recover and to telework from home several days a week for many months as she received physical therapy.
HUD subsequently restructured its law department, which had the effect of requiring employees like the plaintiff to spend more time in the office. The restructuring, combined with the plaintiff’s alleged performance deficiencies, led HUD to revoke her telework privileges and offer her alternative accommodations–adjusting and reducing her work hours and work-week. She filed suit in federal court under the Rehabilitation Act, which is interpreted under the same principles as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The district court granted HUD’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that although the plaintiff had established that she was a qualified person with a disability, no reasonable jury could find that HUD had failed to offer her a reasonable accommodation. The district court found that HUD’s alternative accommodations were reasonable, given the need that arose for the plaintiff to work in the office several days per week as a result of the restructuring. The plaintiff argued on appeal that HUD did not reasonably accommodate her because it offered only ineffective accommodations and failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith. To prevail on her claim of disability discrimination, the plaintiff was required to establish that: (1) she was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) HUD was aware of her disability; and (3) HUD failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. The employer and employee are both required to engage in a flexible interactive process and make a good faith effort to determine what accommodations are necessary.
The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that no rational jury could find that HUD failed to offer the plaintiff reasonable accommodations or engage in the interactive process in good faith. HUD either granted each of her requests or responded with a list of alternative options that reasonably addressed her needs. There was no bad faith. The parties engaged in a meaningful interactive process, with the plaintiff requesting to work from home and HUD presenting her with appropriate alternative accommodations. Moreover, the two accommodations that she sought but did not receive–to telework full-time for one month and later for three to five days per week for six months–were not reasonable on their face. An accommodation to telework from home requires a context-specific inquiry. In this instance, the 7th Circuit concluded that the restructuring of the legal department, which changed the plaintiff’s responsibilities and job description, required the plaintiff to work in the office to collaborate in person with co-workers.
It should be noted that the law in the area of teleworking from home, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, is in a state of flux, as the law tries to keep pace with technology and the evolving workplace.