Working understaffed is never easy for managers or the rest of the work force. The concern about getting the work done creates pressures on everyone. When an employee seeks an accommodation under the ADA, many questions arise. A recent case demonstrated what can happen when not working with the requesting employee.

A utility company staff lawyer was having pregnancy complications. Her doctor ordered bed rest for 10 weeks, so the lawyer asked to work remotely. In the past, she had been allowed to work from home for two weeks following a surgery. The Company assigned a committee to review her request, but before the committee met, the Company President announced that “nobody can telecommute.” Hearing that message, the Committee reviewed the job description and found that there were several tasks that could not be done remotely: taking depositions, trying cases, and supervising staff. As a result, the Committee rejected the request, finding she could not do the essential job functions. Instead, the Company offered FMLA leave and short term disability benefits. During this process and her internal appeals, she worked remotely and no one told her to stop.

The lawyer, who had handled employment matters in the past, returned to work after her leave, but then brought a lawsuit. She claimed that she had a disability and should have been accommodated. A jury found for her and awarded her damages.

The Company appealed, claiming she was unable to perform the essential job functions and need not be accommodated. The Appeals Court disagreed, noting that the functions the Company said the attorney could not do remotely were not tasks she actually performed. The Appeals Court also noted that several of the “essential functions” in the attorney’s job description had not changed in 20 years, and no longer reflected technological advancements. In addition, other lawyers in the Company testified that working remotely would not impact productivity.

When an employee requests an accommodation, it is important to have an open mind about whether the job can be accommodated and to listen to the employee’s proposal. Engaging in an interactive process is critically important as is assessing what the essential requirements of the job really are. Relying on an old job description just might not make sense and can lead to expensive litigation.