In recent years, particularly with technology making it easier for employees to work remotely, courts have struggled to determine whether onsite attendance is an essential job function under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). This question is often dispositive because only qualified individuals—those who can perform a job’s essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation—are protected by the ADA. A federal court in South Carolina recently ruled that an employee who could not get to his worksite for a six-month period could not perform the essential functions of his job and thus his employer did not run afoul of the ADA in terminating his employment. Dunn v. Faithful+Gould Inc., Case No. 6:15-cv-04382 (June 18, 2018).
Dunn worked as a chief scheduler for Faithful+Gould (“FG”) from 2011 until his termination in August 2014. For the first eighteen (18) months of his employment, Dunn worked remotely from his house because no local office had been established. In 2013, a local office was formed, and Dunn changed supervisors. Dunn’s new supervisor did not allow Dunn or other schedulers to work from home. In the summer of 2014, Dunn had two epileptic seizures. According to his doctor, Dunn had no restrictions and could return to work, but he could not drive for six months because South Carolina law prohibits someone from driving within six months of an epileptic seizure. Dunn requested that he be permitted to work from home until his driving privileges were restored. While FG was willing to allow Dunn to work from home one day a week for a four-week period while Dunn figured out a long-term transportation solution, FG refused to allow Dunn to work from home daily for an extended period. In September 2014, Dunn’s employment was terminated after he exhausted all leave available under the FMLA and company policy.
Despite the fact that Dunn’s job description made no reference to onsite attendance and despite the fact that he worked from home for the first eighteen months on the job, the court concluded that onsite attendance was an essential function of Dunn’s job. The court gave significant weight to the judgment of Dunn’s supervisor that onsite attendance was essential and Dunn’s statements to his doctor that he could not perform his job from home. The court also noted that Dunn’s job had changed, and while onsite attendance may not have been essential during his first eighteen months on the job, it was at the relevant time. The court rejected Dunn’s argument that FG should have granted him extended leave as a reasonable accommodation while he waited the six months to be able to legally drive again. The court ruled extended leave was not a reasonable accommodation because it would have required FG to reallocate Dunn’s essential job duties to other employees for an extended period of time.
Dunn illustrates well the case-by-case analysis required in determining whether a job function such as onsite attendance is essential and that the essential nature of a function can actually change over time. Thus, in considering potential accommodations, employers should always conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether any job function, including onsite attendance, is an essential function of a particular position.
Dunn is consistent with the Sixth Circuit’s en banc decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, discussed in a previous blog.