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Tenth Circuit holds employer need not, under ADA, accommodate challenges that an employee’s disability imposes “outside the workplace unrelated to an essential function or a privilege of employment”

The Tenth Circuit recently decided a case involving an employee who required a flexible work schedule to do her job. She suffered from a disability related to her vision. She lived 60 miles from the workplace and relied on family and friends for rides to and from work. Her ability to make it to work on time proved a challenge. The company attempted to allow her to work a flexible work schedule, but that also proved unsuccessful, when her actual schedule became “erratic,” which “contributed to low patient satisfaction scores,” “less than stellar” performance evaluations. She sked the company to continue allowing her the flexible work schedule or even to work remotely full time. The company declined.

The Tenth Circuit held that her request to work remotely or on a flexible work schedule would, if granted, have accommodated “her transportation barrier (which was) a problem she faces outside the workplace unrelated to an essential job function or a privileged of employment.” The company could not control where she lived or when she was able to find rides with friends or family. She was in that sense like all employees, whether disabled or not, and nothing in the ADA imposes on an employer the obligation to grant accommodations that solve workers’ personal off-duty challenges. “(E)mployers have no obligation under the ADA to accommodate disabled employees for problems they face outside the workplace unrelated to the essential job functions of their positions or privileges of employment merely because they are disabled.”

Together with another recent Tenth Circuit case, the decision suggests how the courts may approach litigation that may arise as a result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the workplace.

Source: Unrein v. PHC-Fort Morgan, Inc., — F.3d — (10th Cir. 4/8/2021).

Tenth Circuit previews likely ruling when employers require return-to-work following pandemic

A recent Tenth Circuit decision previews courts’ likely analysis when employers begin requiring workers to return to the workplace following the eventual end of the pandemic. In the case, the Court held that making a “transitional duty” permanent is not a reasonable accommodation — in other words is not required by the ADA — especially where it would eliminate an essential function of the worker’s position.

The Court used the phrase “transitional duty” to refer to the employer-prison’s temporary assignment of a disabled worker to relatively light duty that consisted of “sedentary” tasks in the “control room.” The prison provided the transitional duty only as a temporary accommodation of his arthritis pending hip surgery after which he was expected to return to his regular duties as a correctional officer. It was undisputed that the regular duties of a correctional officer included the ability to defend oneself, which he could not do absent successful recovery from surgery. When the temporary transitional duty ended and he was still unable to work as a correctional officer, his employment was terminated. He sued claiming that the ADA required the prison to convert the transitional duty into his permanent assignment. The prison responded and the Tenth Circuit agreed that making his temporary accommodation permanent would not have been a reasonable accommodation, in other words, was not required under the ADA. His job was to work as a correctional officer; the transitional duty was merely a temporary effort to respond to his arthritis and need for surgery.

Just as having permitted that correctional officer to work in the control room was merely a temporary response to the circumstances at the time, one that the ADA did not require to be made permanent, so, now in the context of the pandemic, allowing employees to work remotely, temporarily during the pandemic, does not open the door to ADA lawsuits claiming to make remote-work permanent, at least where attendance is itself an essential function of the job. Readers are reminded that the EEOC similarly recently opined that temporarily eliminating an essential function, in response to specific circumstances such as the pandemic, does not require that elimination to be made permanent under the ADA (or Title VII).

Source: Mannan v. Colorado, 2020 BL 493234, 2020 Us App Lexis 39822 (10th Cir. 12/18/20).

EEOC issues guidance on vaccines

The EEOC issued guidance on vaccines, as subpart K of its Technical Assistance (FAQ) regarding coronavirus. The EEOC’s FAQ is not regulatory, it does not carry the weight of law, and it did not reach any specific conclusions. Rather, it included the EEOC’s current thinking that:

  • It may become possible, as vaccines begin to be available, for an employer to mandate vaccination as a condition of entry into the workplace if the company can establish business necessity and that failure to impose the requirement would pose a direct threat of harm to others or that employee’s own health.
  • The EEOC noted it may or may not also be possible for an employer to mandate vaccination as a condition of employment. In other words, the EEOC said that, while some employers may be able to require vaccination as a condition of physically entering the workplace, to terminate an un-vaccinated employee would require a higher showing to prove business necessity and direct threat. For example, such an employer would have to prove the inability to allow the worker to take leave, to work remotely, etc.
  • In both instances, an employer would have to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee who declines vaccination
    • Regarding a disability, under the ADA, unless the employer can prove undue hardship, i.e., that “there is no way” to allow the worker into the workplace or just to keep their job without the vaccine, to take leave, if not even to work remotely, and/or
    • Regarding a sincerely held religious belief, under Title VII, unless it would impose more than a de minimis cost or burden to the company to provide such an accommodation.

The EEOC recommends that employers consider, in all circumstances, using a third-party medical contractor that expertly advise workers, obtain informed consent, and manage any questions as well as the administration of the vaccine, and the exchange of any information regarding genetics, within medical confidentiality, such that the worker would, once vaccinate, simply provide the company with documentation of having been vaccinated, ensuring no confidential information is shared with the company.

Employers should first be aware that the EEOC does not have jurisdiction over and did not opine on other federal or state laws, which may well be thornier restrictions for employers who feel required vaccines are needed in their workplaces. Further, multiple states have already begun the process of debating whether to legislate or simply regulate in this area.

Finally, it should be noted that the EEOC was discussing vaccines that have been “approved or authorized” by the FDA. Currently no vaccines have been “approved” by the FDA, some have received an emergency use “authorization.” The EEOC did not discuss the fact that, in the fact sheet supporting the current authorizations, the FDA specifically stated: “It is your choice to receive or not receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.” While that statement seems to be limited to a patient’s choice in terms of their own medical care — not their employment rights — that statement’s importance has not yet been analyzed by the EEOC (or the courts).

EEOC updates Q&A, specifically re employees with an underlying disability that puts them at “higher risk” re coronavirus

The EEOC updated its prior Q&A re coronavirus, adding three questions (numbered G3-G5) to address the needs of employees who already suffer from an underlying disability that, now, puts them at “higher risk” related to coronavirus.

First in questions G3-G4, the EEOC advises that an employer is obligated to consider whether a reasonable accommodation exists to permit such an individual to return to work once a request is made. Until a request is made, the employer has no obligation to consider the possibility of a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC explains too that the request need not be made formally — it may be made “in conversation or in writing” — and it need not be made by the employee themselves — it may be made by the employee “or a third party, such as an employee’s doctor.” Indeed the request need not even be a request, it is enough if the employee “let(s) the employer know that she needs a change for a reason related to” an underlying disability.

Question G4 confirms that an employer need not consider a reasonable accommodation even when the company knows the worker has an underlying disability that might put them at a “higher risk” related to coronavirus, until such a request is made. However where the employer is itself concerned that the employee’s disability might put them at a “higher risk” related to coronavirus, the employer cannot on its own initiative “exclude” the worker from work unless it can prove a “direct threat” to the worker’s own health (or the health of others) and, further, that the “direct threat” cannot be removed by reasonable accommodation, such as allowing “telework, leave, or reassignment” if reasonable. The EEOC discusses the possibility of showing such a “direct threat,” noting it “is a high standard,” with proof that “if, after going through all these steps (of considering the relevant risk, the possibility of reasonable accommodation, etc.), the facts support the conclusion that the employee poses a significant risk of substantial harm to himself that cannot be reduced or eliminated by reasonable accommodation.”

Question G5 discusses possible accommodations that should be considered by an employer and worker in trying to determine if a reasonable accommodation might exist to permit a worker with an underlying disability to work despite a “higher risk” related to coronavirus (emphasis added).

Accommodations may include additional or enhanced protective gowns, masks, gloves, or other gear beyond what the employer may generally provide to employees returning to its workplace.  Accommodations also may include additional or enhanced protective measures, for example, erecting a barrier that provides separation between an employee with a disability and coworkers/the public or increasing the space between an employee with a disability and others.  Another possible reasonable accommodation may be elimination or substitution of particular “marginal” functions (less critical or incidental job duties as distinguished from the “essential” functions of a particular position).  In addition, accommodations may include temporary modification of work schedules (if that decreases contact with coworkers and/or the public when on duty or commuting) or moving the location of where one performs work (for example, moving a person to the end of a production line rather than in the middle of it if that provides more social distancing).

These are only a few ideas.  Identifying an effective accommodation depends, among other things, on an employee’s job duties and the design of the workspace.  An employer and employee should discuss possible ideas; the Job Accommodation Network (www.askjan.org) also may be able to assist in helping identify possible accommodations.  As with all discussions of reasonable accommodation during this pandemic, employers and employees are encouraged to be creative and flexible.

Religious accommodation need not preserve overtime opportunities

The Tenth Circuit recently decided a case where the plaintiff’s requested religious accommodation gave him the time he needed off for religious reasons but meant losing overtime. The Court held the employer did not have to allow him to work more later in the week to make up for the lost overtime.

The worker had asked for Saturdays off as a religious accommodation. The employer agreed. However, because Saturdays were the day of the week when the worker (and the other workers apparently) worked overtime, it left him with no overtime opportunity. Wanting to keep his Saturdays off, he asked to be allowed to make up the lost hours by working overtime on Sundays. The employer refused.

The Tenth Circuit recognized that granting the worker his requested accommodation of Saturdays off had cost him his overtime opportunities but held that the company was not required to allow him to work make up hours on Sundays. The Court held that an accommodation is reasonable if it allows the plaintiff “to engage in his religious practice despite the employer’s normal rules to the contrary.” Here letting him take Saturdays off allowed him to engage in his religious practices. The Court rejected the argument that Title VII required the company to then allow him to work make-up overtime on Sundays.

Though (the plaintiff) may have requested an opportunity to make up his overtime hours on Sunday, Title VII did not require (the company) to offer (his) preferred accommodation.

The case illustrates Title VII’s basic principle that a worker may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation of his religious practices, and so long as it is effective at allowing him to engage in his religious beliefs, it need not be his preferred accommodation, even where the difference means lost pay opportunities.

Source: Christmon v. B&B Airparts, Inc., case no. 17-3209 (10th Cir. 5/24/18).

Tenth Circuit restates summary judgment test with extensive discussion of multiple ADA and general employment law doctrines

The Tenth Circuit restated the test for granting summary judgment in favor of employers, and in doing so extensively discussed multiple doctrines frequently raised in such motions, including the honest belief doctrine, the adequacy of an employer’s investigation and the reasonableness of requested accommodations. With the regard to the last doctrine, the court noted that, as a matter of law, when workers advise their employers of a disability and request an accommodation after they have engaged in workplace misconduct, it is not a reasonable accommodation to ask that such misconduct be excused due to their disability. The court cited its 2004 precedent, Davila v. Quest Corp., Inc., for the proposition that “excusing workplace misconduct to provide a fresh start/second chance to an employee whose disability could be offered as an after-the-fact excuse is not a required accommodation under the ADA.” The Court concluded that “a denied request for retroactive leniency cannot support an accommodation claim.”

The case was DeWitt v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., 845 F.3d 1299 (10th Cir. 2017).