In a recent “work from home” decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the court denied Sneaker Villa, Inc.’s, (the employer) motion for summary judgment. Slayton v. Sneaker Villa, Inc. Why is that important? In employment discrimination lawsuits, an employer’s earliest opportunity to have a case dismissed without the cost and risk of a jury trial is with a summary judgment motion. If the motion is denied, the case is headed for trial. The risks go up, the costs go up and, typically, so do the plaintiff’s settlement demands. In this case, the court decided that the question of whether the employer should have allowed work from home as a reasonable accommodation should be decided by a jury. The case is a reminder that an employer can jump too quickly to the conclusion that a request for a work from home assignment cannot be accommodated.
The employee, Ms. Slayton, suffered fractured vertebrae and head trauma in a bus accident. After approximately two months of short-term disability leave, Ms. Slaton asked to return to her job as a corporate recruiter with the accommodation of working from home for four weeks, or until her physical therapy was completed. The employer denied the request to work from home and said that Ms. Slayton’s job would have to be filled because of the critical recruiting period that the employer was about to enter. Ms. Slayton offered other options, including working part-time in the office 10-15 hours a week for four weeks during which she anticipated restrictions. All of her suggestions were rejected. The record is a little jumbled on the communications between Ms. Slayton and the employer. Ms. Slayton and the employer had differing versions about when Ms. Slayton was asked for further information from the doctor, about when that information was provided and even about when she was terminated.
The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that regular attendance at the office and at job fairs is an essential function of the job that cannot be accomplished from home. Sound like a pretty good argument? Cases in which an employee with a disability requests the opportunity to work from home, either temporarily or permanently, as a reasonable accommodation are more and more common these days. Courts recognize that, in many jobs, regular attendance at the workplace is essential to successful performance. However, it is not a foregone conclusion. An employer has to be able to demonstrate the particulars. An employer that jumps too quickly to the conclusion that work at home cannot be accommodated could be in for difficult and expensive legal battles. The court in this case concluded that there was at least a genuine dispute of fact about whether physical presence at work was an essential job function for Slayton’s position. Ms. Slayton argued she could perform the truly essential functions of her job at home with access to a telephone and internet. The court also noted that the job description did not speak directly to physical presence in the office as one of the 17 specified “principal duties” of the job or as one of the “qualifications” for the job.
The court was troubled by the confusing record of the communication between the employer and Ms. Slayton concerning her accommodation requests and the termination decision. Because it seemed unclear who had decided what and at what point in time, the court concluded that the employer may have made the termination decision before it had all the information from the employee’s doctor. That was enough for the court to conclude that the employer’s stated reason for the termination, inability to come to the office and inability to travel may have been a pretext for disability discrimination. So that question also will go to a jury.
What might have helped?
Two things might have made it easier for the court to dismiss this case at the summary judgment stage. This employer may have jumped too quickly to the conclusion that work at home was not possible. At a minimum, more detailed and well-documented dialogue on the issue might have placed the employer in a stronger position. A documented record of listening to, considering and then having a supportable reason to reject the work at home request might have helped the court decide that no reasonable juror could conclude work at home was feasible. Next, the court may have been a bit unrealistic in expecting that “you have to be at the office” would be in the job description. But, if the essential duties of the job were described in the job description in a way that supported the need to be at the office it might have given the employer a better argument. For example, language that described the employee’s specific role at job fairs as essential or that mentioned the importance of face-to-face team meetings might have taken the job description issue out of the equation. Last, and maybe most important, this employer suffered from the all-too-common problems associated with quick judgments and poor documentation in the interactive process. The record was unclear on when the decision to terminate was made and even when it was communicated. That seems to have shaken the court’s confidence in the employer’s stated reason for the termination and the quality of the interactive discussions. Careful attention to documenting what is being said, to whom and when, and to documenting the deliberations and decision might have headed that problem off.