You Can’t Go Home Again: Employee’s Telework Accommodation Unreasonable, Seventh Circuit Rules
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) did not fail to accommodate a disabled lawyer by rejecting her request to work from home and offering alternative accommodations instead, the Seventh Circuit ruled in Yochim v. Carson, No. 18-3670 (7th Cir. Aug. 15, 2019). Affirming summary judgment, the Court held that the employee’s telework request was unreasonable on its face.
Yochim worked as a lawyer for HUD for over two decades. Throughout the majority of Yochim’s tenure, HUD had a flexible telework policy, which permitted employees to work from home several days per week at their manager’s discretion. In late 2012, however, HUD’s legal department underwent a functional reorganization—requiring attorneys to assist each other through cross-training and collaboration—a change in approach less suited for telework.
Shortly thereafter, Yochim had surgery to treat her carpal tunnel syndrome in her hand. Following surgery, she requested time off and permission to work from home on certain days, and HUD granted her request. In 2014, Yochim’s supervisor revoked Yochim’s telework privileges and issued her a written reprimand for performance deficiencies. Thereafter, Yochim again requested to telework three days per week for six months plus two additional days per week as needed due to pain, medical appointments, and recovery. She supported her request with a doctor’s note explaining she had significant pain and stiffness and recommending work from home at least three days per week.
Yochim’s supervisor responded by offering a list of alternative accommodations, including an ergonomic assessment, additional paralegal assistance to reduce Yochim’s typing, a compressed weekly schedule, and generous leave approval. Yochim’s supervisor explained to Yochim that working from home was no longer an option because of her performance deficiencies.
Yochim retired and filed suit alleging that HUD violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate her requests for telework.
Seventh Circuit’s Decision
Affirming summary judgment, the Seventh Circuit held that no reasonable jury could find that HUD failed to accommodate Yochim.
The Seventh Circuit explained, “a general consensus exists among courts that jobs often require face-to-face collaboration.” The Court concluded that Yochim held just such a job—noting the change in the legal department that required attorneys to work in teams and collaborate more with each other. Thus, Yochim could not show that “the two accommodations 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 reasonable on their face.”
The Court found no fault with HUD’s proposed alternative accommodations and reaffirmed that employers need only provide a reasonable accommodation, “not the accommodation the employee would prefer.”
No bright lines exist as to when telework may be required as a reasonable accommodation. Rather, as the Seventh Circuit noted in its ruling, an accommodation to telework requires a context-specific inquiry. With advancements in technology, working remotely is certainly becoming more feasible. However, as the Seventh Circuit recognized, many jobs still require face-to-face collaboration, and thus accommodations in lieu of telework may be proper and lawful in many instances. The Court’s decision also demonstrates the importance of maintaining accurate job descriptions as HUD relied on its updated job description to support its argument that onsite attendance was required.