First and foremost, happy holidays!
We can’t pass up the opportunity to encourage you to stay off the naughty list by telling you about this Eighth Circuit case offering guidance on working with your employees who request ADA accommodations. In Joseph Mobley v. St. Luke’s Health System, Inc., the Eighth Circuit addressed an employer’s denial of a blanket accommodation request (i.e., a request to have the same pre-arranged accommodation whenever disability symptoms occur) and what constitutes a “good faith” effort when considering an employee’s accommodation request.
Facts and the Lawsuit
Joseph Mobley worked as a customer service supervisor at St. Luke’s. Most of his team worked remotely, and St. Luke’s policy allowed supervisors to work remotely two days per week. Occasionally, Mobley’s supervisor allowed her direct reports, like Mobley, to work remotely more than twice per week.
In 2016, Mobley was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Initially, he did not request an accommodation but continued to work even when his symptoms flared. In December 2017, Mobley made his first reasonable accommodation request to his supervisor: Could he work remotely when he had an MS flare up? After consideration of the request, the blanket request was denied but St. Luke’s encouraged him to either use PTO or FMLA during flare ups. Mobley asked again in February 2018 and provided a doctor’s note recommending remote work during MS flare ups. St. Luke’s denied the blanket request but instructed Mobley to ask his supervisor on a case-by-case basis. Despite the refusal of the blanket request, there was only one instance where his supervisor denied Mobley’s request to work remotely. In August 2018, Mobley resigned.
Mobley filed a lawsuit claiming disability, gender, race discrimination and retaliation, as well as discrimination in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). St. Luke’s filed a motion for summary judgment on all claims, and the district court granted it. Mobley appealed the disability discrimination claim and the MHRA and ADA failure to accommodate claims, which the Eighth Circuit analyzed simultaneously as the MHRA uses the same framework as the ADA.
Appeal and the Eighth Circuit’s Decision
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit considered whether Mobley’s request for additional remote workdays was reasonable. The court found no evidence indicating that Mobley was unable to perform his job from home during flare ups (as he was already working from home at least two days per week). Moreover, the court pointed out that the supervisor’s preference that Mobley be in person wasn’t enough to deny the remote work as a reasonable accommodation of his disability, particularly while most of the workforce was remote.
Nevertheless (and thankfully for St. Luke’s) it takes more to prove a failure-to-accommodate case. The Eighth Circuit held that even if Mobley could prove that he could perform the essential functions of his job while working remotely, he couldn’t show that St. Luke’s failed to engage in the interactive process. The court held that even though St. Luke’s denied the blanket request for remote work, the fact that it considered Mobley’s request, allowed him to seek permission for remote work on a case-by-case basis, and told him to follow up with questions or concerns, showed St. Luke’s engaged in the interactive process. St. Luke’s engaging in the interactive process allowed it to win on the failure-to-accommodate claim at the summary judgment stage and on appeal.
What does this mean? With the move to so many remote and hybrid workforces since the pandemic, it is important to consider the big picture if you receive an ADA reasonable accommodation request for remote work. A few things to consider:
What is the company policy?
Does anyone in the employee’s position work remotely some or all of the time?
Do other employees work remotely?
Has the requesting employee been working remotely already? How often? Are there performance issues? Is there something about the request that is significantly different than what has happened in the past?
Is the employee required to be in person to perform any part of his or her job?
Finally, if you don’t want to grant a blanket accommodation (i.e., the same accommodation regardless of the circumstances), consider working with the employee on a case-by-case occurrence. Most importantly, communicate with the employee, and try to work it out. The more evidence you have to show your good faith in trying to accommodate the employee, the better.
We hope you find these reminders helpful and wish you a wonderful holiday season with your friends, family, and loved ones. As always, if you have questions about the ADA or other related employment issues, give your local employment attorneys a call.