The Americans with Disabilities Act and state discrimination laws requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees so that they can do the essential functions of their job. A recent decision from an Ohio federal court points out that telecommuting for disabled employees may not be the answer. In the case of Brian Preston v. Great Lakes Specialty Finance, Inc. decided on April 18, 2017 from the Federal Court in Ohio, the employer obtained summary judgment against Preston’s employment disability claims so Preston lost without going to a jury. Preston suffered from Autism Spectrum Disorder which caused him to have heightened sensory sensitivities to visual and audio stimuli in his surrounding environment. Preston notified his employer of these problems and ultimately requested that he work exclusively from home or in a private office. The employer responded by allowing him to work 4 of his 5 work day week at home with Monday being in the office.
Preston’s telecommuting four out of the five day work week was not the solution to his work performance difficulties and he was ultimately fired. Preston claimed, in part, that the accommodation that he requested that he get a private office or the ability to work at home 5 days a work week was reasonable, yet the court found that to be irrelevant. The Americans with Disabilities Act entitles employees to a reasonable accommodation for their disability but not only the specific reasonable accommodation of that employee’s choice. Preston needed to demonstrate that the employer’s offer to accommodation for working from home 4 days per week was not reasonable, not that Preston had come up with a reasonable accommodation of his own so the employer should be forced to accept the employee’s choice. Furthermore, the court found that it is in the employer’s interest to have a consistent predetermined schedule where Preston would be available for whatever unscheduled face-to-face interaction his supervisors, clients or fellow employees may require and noted that the employer is not required to allowed disabled workers to work at home unless they can effectively perform their work-related duties at home. In this case, the court found that there was no genuine issue that Preston was not performing his job well at home. Therefore, he was not allowed to argue to a jury that his termination resulted in employment disability discrimination.
Interaction with fellow employees, customers and supervisors can often be essential functions of a particular job. While telecommuting in some circumstances may be an appropriate reasonable accommodation for a disability, in some jobs it is not a reasonable accommodation. Both the New Hampshire and federal laws do not require the employers to accept the accommodation of choice by the employee, but to have an interactive discussion with the employee to determine a reasonable accommodation. It is no surprise that many employees would prefer to telecommute and employers need not merely accept the employees’ and their doctors’ recommended accommodation but consider whether or not there are other reasonable accommodations that would permit the employee to perform the essential functions of their job.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].