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Federal Appeals Court: Employer Unreasonably Denied Pregnant Worker’s Telecommuting Request

Posted on Friday, May 4, 2018

An employer should not have denied an employee’s request to telecommute during the final 10 weeks of her pregnancy because the request was a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

The decision in Mosby-Meachem v Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division affirmed a jury verdict for the employee of more than $110,000, including compensatory damages and back pay.

Notably, the decision was issued three years after the 6th Circuit’s ruling in EEOC v Ford Motor Co. In that case, an en banc 6th Circuit held that telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation, unless an employee shows that regular attendance in the workplace and face-to-face interaction are not essential elements of the job.

Complications During Pregnancy

The plaintiff was an in-house attorney for Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLG&W). Although the plaintiff’s supervisor had instituted a written policy that required in-office attendance for employees, some employees still worked from home. In fact, at one point, the plaintiff telecommuted for two weeks while recovering from surgery, without any incident.

The plaintiff had suffered three miscarriages and began having complications when she became pregnant the fourth time. As a result, her doctors placed her on bed rest for the final 10 weeks of her pregnancy. When the plaintiff requested that MLG&W allow her to work remotely during these 10 weeks, the company’s ADA Committee denied the request.

The plaintiff then sued MLG&W for discrimination. A jury found that MLG&W violated the ADA by denying the plaintiff’s reasonable request to telecommute. The jury awarded the plaintiff $92,000 in compensatory damages and $18,184.32 in back pay.

MLG&W appealed.

Telecommuting Is A ‘Reasonable Accommodation’

MLG&W argued the jury did not have a sufficient basis to find that the plaintiff could perform all her essential job functions from home. The 6th Circuit disagreed, concluding the plaintiff’s evidence of discrimination “undermined” the evidence presented by MLG&W and “independently supported” the jury’s finding that she could perform the essential functions of her job remotely for 10 weeks.

In particular, the 6th Circuit emphasized that several MLG&W employees, as well as outside counsel who worked with the plaintiff, testified they believed the plaintiff could perform her essential job functions from home.

 Addressing its 2015 ruling in EEOC v Ford Motor Co, the 6th Circuit noted that decision did not “expressly” preclude teleworking in all cases, particularly when an employee asks to work from home for a “finite period of time,” as the plaintiff did in this case. Accordingly, “a jury could have reasonably concluded from the evidence presented at trial that [the plaintiff] could perform all the essential functions of her job remotely for ten weeks,” the 6th Circuit held.

In addition, the 6th Circuit denied MLG&W’s request for a new trial. The Court said that, given the amount of evidence supporting the plaintiff’s claim, the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the jury’s verdict was not contrary to the weight of the evidence.

The 6th Circuit also rejected MLG&W’s argument that the plaintiff was not entitled to back pay because her law license had been briefly suspended and, thus, she was “unqualified” to perform the functions of her job. The Court pointed out it was undisputed that, had MLG&W not denied the plaintiff’s requested accommodation, she would have received her full pay for work she had performed. In addition, the Court noted the potential unlicensed practice of law issue is for the Tennessee Bar to address – not the judiciary.

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