7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on Failure-to-Accommodate Claim

On August 15, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff-employee alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act for failure to accommodate.  Yochim v. Carson, Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, No. 8-3670 (7th Cir. 8/15/2019).  The plaintiff worked in the legal department of HUD.  For years, she took advantage of its flexible and progressive policy permitting employees to work from home several days per week.  After undergoing surgery, she requested time off and permission to work from home.  HUD agreed and allowed her time to recover and to telework from home several days a week for many months as she received physical therapy.

HUD subsequently restructured its law department, which had the effect of requiring employees like the plaintiff to spend more time in the office.  The restructuring, combined with the plaintiff's alleged performance deficiencies, led HUD to revoke her telework privileges and offer her alternative accommodations--adjusting and reducing her work hours and work-week.  She filed suit in federal court under the Rehabilitation Act, which is interpreted under the same principles as the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  The district court granted HUD's motion for summary judgment, concluding that although the plaintiff had established that she was a qualified person with a disability, no reasonable jury could find that HUD had failed to offer her a reasonable accommodation.  The district court found that HUD's alternative accommodations were reasonable, given the need that arose for the plaintiff to work in the office several days per week as a result of the restructuring. The plaintiff argued on appeal that HUD did not reasonably accommodate her because it offered only ineffective accommodations and failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith.  To prevail on her claim of disability discrimination, the plaintiff was required to establish that: (1) she was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) HUD was aware of her disability; and (3) HUD failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.  The employer and employee are both required to engage in a flexible interactive process and make a good faith effort to determine what accommodations are necessary. 

The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that no rational jury could find that HUD failed to offer the plaintiff reasonable accommodations or engage in the interactive process in good faith.  HUD either granted each of her requests or responded with a list of alternative options that reasonably addressed her needs.  There was no bad faith.  The parties engaged in a meaningful interactive process, with the plaintiff requesting to work from home and HUD presenting her with appropriate alternative accommodations.  Moreover, the two accommodations that 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 not reasonable on their face.  An accommodation to telework from home requires a context-specific inquiry.  In this instance, the 7th Circuit concluded that the restructuring of the legal department, which changed the plaintiff's responsibilities and job description, required the plaintiff to work in the office to collaborate in person with co-workers. 

It should be noted that the law in the area of teleworking from home, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, is in a state of flux, as the law tries to keep pace with technology and the evolving workplace.