Teenagers are not the only ones dissatisfied when their pleas of “why” are met with a “because I said so.” It turns out that courts of appeal do not care for it either.

Careful readers of this space know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require employers to allow modified work schedules when appropriate. An issue that often arises when considering a modified work schedule is whether an employee can perform the essential functions of their job if they are not at work full time.
A recent decision from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals makes it clear that employers cannot insist that a disabled employee work full time just because the employer says so. In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, 6th Cir., No. 17-3406, July 17, 2018, Heidi Hostettler was fired by her employer, the College of Wooster, while recovering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety after the birth of her child.

Believing that Hostettler was suffering from “one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had seen, Hostettler’s doctor provided a restriction that Hostettler return on a part-time basis only, working a total of two or three days a week. The physician believed this would only last a couple of months.

Hostettler’s supervisor generally agreed to that accommodation but countered that she work 5 half-days per week instead. Hostettler accepted this and returned to work in late May on that schedule. Her performance evaluation, conducted in July 2014, contained no negative feedback, and referred to Hostettler as a “great colleague and a welcome addition to the HR team!” Shortly thereafter, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification that continued the restriction and estimated that she could return to a full-time schedule in early September. The next day she was fired because, the supervisor argued, the department could not function appropriately unless Hostettler could return to full-time work immediately.

Hostettler sued. The district court granted Wooster’s motion for summary judgment, accepting the college’s assertion that full-time presence was an essential function of the HR Generalist position. According to the District Court, because she could not work full time, she was not qualified.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed. The Sixth Circuit held that although full-time presence may well be an essential function of some jobs, it is a fact-specific inquiry and depends on the job. Hostettler was able to point to two employees who had received longer periods of medical leave for non-pregnancy conditions and she presented an affidavit from a co-worker that there were no problems in HR resulting from Hostettler’s working part-time and that all the department functions had been fulfilled. This, according to the appeals court, created questions of fact that a jury needed to resolve: “In sum, full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is. If it were otherwise, employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week.”
The thoughtful employer will not deny a request for a part-time accommodation unless it can show (and hopefully document) that full time presence requirements are logically tied to some other work-related requirement.