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U.S. Court of Appeals Upholds $92,000 Jury Verdict for Tennessee Employee Not Allowed to Temporarily Telecommute

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On February 21, 2018, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a Memphis jury’s $92,000 award under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to a Memphis Light, Gas & Water in-house lawyer whose request to work from home for ten weeks while on bedrest due to pregnancy complications was denied.  In the decision, entitled Mosby-Meacham v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, the court of appeals rejected MLG&W’s argument that in-person attendance was an essential function of the in-house lawyer’s job, finding that she could perform all of her job’s essential functions remotely for ten weeks.  Therefore, the court held, the requested 10-week period of telework was a reasonable accommodation of the employee’s pregnancy-related disability and the jury could properly find MLG&W’s refusal to approve the request to be disability discrimination in violation of the ADA.

The court of appeals identified key evidence in the case which supported the jury’s verdict against the employer.  These points are important lessons for employers in Tennessee and elsewhere dealing with employees’ requests for accommodations for disabilities:

Inaccurate, outdated job description: Certain evidence undermined MLG&W’s attempt to rely on the employee’s written job description.  The job description listed as essential functions tasks which the employee’s job had never required her to perform in her eight years at the company.  Further, the job description was a 20-year old questionnaire that did not reflect changes in the job that had resulted from technological advancements since that time. 

The lesson: Job descriptions should be accurate and up-to-date as to what functions the employee is in fact required to perform.

No telecommuting policy: MLG&W had no written telecommuting policy at the time, and in practice, employees often telecommuted.  In fact, the employee in question had previously been allowed to work from home while recovering from neck surgery.

The lesson: An employer’s significant policies should be clearly stated in writing and consistently followed.

Failure to engage in an interactive process with the employee: Once an employee requests an accommodation, the ADA requires the employer to engage in an “interactive process” to identify potential reasonable accommodations for the employee’s disability-related limitations.  Here, the court pointed to evidence that MLG&W failed to do so, but rather had already decided what accommodation it was willing to offer before ever speaking to the employee. This included evidence that the company’s president had said “[N]obody can telecommute.”

The lesson: Employers must not decide whether to grant an employee’s accommodation request, or what accommodation will be considered, without first speaking with the employee about potential accommodations that could overcome the employee’s limitations.

If you’re a Tennessee employer facing a complex issue related to employees with disabilities, or a discrimination or wrongful termination claim, obtain professional and thorough legal assistance by contacting the Law Offices of Cary Schwimmer for a consultation, at 901-753-5537.

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