November 18, 2019

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Seventh Circuit Holds ADA Does Not Necessarily Require Remote Work Arrangement

A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that an employer could rescind a work-from-home arrangement and require an employee to be physically present without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court explained that due to changes in responsibilities for the position, the employer was within its rights to determine that an employee’s physical presence had become an essential job function. Thus, under the ADA, a Chicago resident employee whose disability prevented her from being present at the employer’s site in Texas was not a “qualified individual” for the particular role.

In Bilinsky v. American Airlines, Inc., the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendant employer. The plaintiff, a former communications specialist, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). The employee’s department was located in the Dallas, but for several years, she had been permitted to work remotely from Chicago, usually traveling to Texas on a weekly basis.

In 2013, after a merger with another airline increased the department’s workload, the department vice president required all department employees to be physically present in Dallas. However, the plaintiff’s MS symptoms were aggravated by excessive heat, and she was thus unable to relocate to Texas. The defendant employer unsuccessfully explored accommodating the plaintiff’s heat sensitivity on-site, and tried to find alternate positions for the plaintiff, but the plaintiff was either not interested in or not qualified for the alternate positions. The defendant permitted the plaintiff to continue working remotely until early 2015, at which time it informed her that she would be terminated if she did not relocate to Texas. The plaintiff was terminated May 1, 2015.

After filing a Charge of Discrimination and receiving a Right to Sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the plaintiff brought her ADA suit, alleging failure to accommodate and retaliation under the ADA and the Illinois Human Rights Act.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment for the employer, finding that due to her inability to relocate to Texas to work full-time at the employer’s Dallas offices, the plaintiff was not a “qualified individual.” On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Although the plaintiff was qualified to do her job before the 2013 merger while working remotely, under the circumstances, the court agreed with the district court’s determination that after the merger, physical presence eventually became an essential function of the plaintiff’s job. Because the plaintiff could not be physically present in Texas, the court determined that she was not a “qualified individual” for the role under the ADA.

Despite the favorable outcome in this case, employers would be well served to heed the dissent’s emphasis on a written job description, which set forth requirements and qualifications for the role (e.g. location). This was particularly emphasized in the context of the summary judgment. The majority also reiterated that “regular work-site attendance is an essential function of most jobs,” but was careful to point out that permitting employees to telecommute is no longer as extraordinary an accommodation as it once was. Regarding accommodations, the court noted that “[l]itigants (and courts) in ADA cases would do well to assess what’s reasonable under the statute under current technological capabilities, not what was possible years ago.”

© 2019 BARNES & THORNBURG LLP

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About this Author

Peter J. Wozniak Barnes Thornburg Chicago  Labor Employment
Partner

Pete Wozniak is a vigorous advocate who strives to help his clients navigate issues that can be fraught with challenges as painlessly and efficiently as possible. He is a candid and personable counselor, offering his clients direct advice by leveraging his deep experience performing a broad range of outcome critical functions for complex labor and employment matters.

Pete represents clients across a number of industries, including transportation and logistics, restaurants, retail, manufacturing, and temporary staffing. Handling a number of high profile matters, he identifies the...

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Mark Wallin, Attorney, BT, Chicago, Labor Employment
Of Counsel

In order to provide the best counsel, Mark Wallin believes it is his role to understand his clients’ business needs so he can help them determine what resolution will provide the most benefit. His keen ability to understand his clients’ practical concerns allows him to advise on the best path to successfully resolve issues – whether through traditional litigation or negotiated resolution.

In the course of his practice, Mark has focused on providing the highest-level of service to his clients and building long-term relationships. Specifically, he defends employers in a wide range of employment matters including wage and hour class and collective actions, as well as complex, multi-plaintiff and single plaintiff employment discrimination claims brought not only by private plaintiffs but also initiated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Mark has successfully represented companies of virtually all sizes, litigating matters across multiple areas of the law, from the pleading stage through appeal. He has also represented clients in arbitrations and before administrative bodies.

Mark vigilantly stays abreast of cases, laws, and trends that may impact his clients coming out of the courts, Congress and the state legislature, as well as the U.S. Department of Labor, the EEOC, and state regulatory agencies. He strives to keep a watchful eye on how labor and employment related laws are evolving so as to proactively advise clients.

In addition to his regular legal practice, Mark has undertaken several pro bono cases including trying criminal jury trials in state and federal court, and representing indigent plaintiffs in civil rights matters as part of the federal Trial Bar.

Mark began honing his litigation skill during law school when he interned at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, where he handled both civil and criminal issues. He also interned for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which gave him a unique vantage of seeing the issues from the court’s perspective.

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