Employee’s ADA Suit Over Denial of Remote Work Ends at Seventh Circuit

Employment Law

Is remote work always a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? According to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case involving a hospital employee, the answer is no.

A hospital director of imaging services, Anna Kinney, supervised about 120 employees and oversaw the functioning of the medical imaging equipment. In 2018, her employer approved her request for intermittent medical leave due to anxiety.

On March 15, 2020, hospital management instructed Kinney and many other employees to work remotely as the spreading COVID-19 virus became a pandemic. Kinney began working remotely, going to the hospital two or three times a month.

She stopped going on-site at the beginning of August 2020 because the hospital required that everyone inside wear a mask, and Kinney said she was unable to wear a mask because of her anxiety.

When her absences from the hospital led to complaints and questions about her job performance, hospital management told Kinney that she had to return to work on-site at least several days each week.

She submitted a doctor’s note requesting that she be allowed to work solely from home to avoid having to wear a mask in the hospital. Her request was denied. Kinney began working in person two days a week, but she spent the time in her office with the door closed and without a mask. For her days at home, she used intermittent leave and accrued paid time off. She resigned when she ran out of leave.

Kinney then filed suit, alleging that the hospital violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her request to work remotely. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital, and Kinney appealed.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

While Kinney asserted that she could perform all of her job duties remotely, a review of her job description and testimony from her colleagues demonstrated otherwise, the court said.

“The fact that many employees were able to work remotely temporarily when forced to do so by a global health crisis does not mean that those jobs do not have essential functions that require in-person work over the medium to long term,” the court wrote. “Determining whether a specific job has essential functions that require in-person work has become much more of a case-specific inquiry.”

Here, Kinney’s job description said that the position required evaluating staff in the department and serving as a “liaison” between the radiologists, radiology residents, chairperson, radiology staff and other department leaders. It also required overseeing the proper functioning of sophisticated medical imaging equipment and ensuring the facilities and equipment were maintained appropriately.

Kinney admitted that if she worked from home, someone else would need to perform the on-site monitoring and evaluations.

Having another employee perform a position’s essential function is not a reasonable accommodation, the court said. Kinney could not accomplish this work when she was at home or if she came to the hospital but remained alone in her office.

Numerous employees whom she supervised also complained that her absence affected her performance and the department more broadly, the court pointed out.

Kinney’s request to work remotely would not have enabled her to perform the essential functions of her job, the court said.

“Even if she had received her requested accommodation and had gone to the hospital two days a week, she was still asking to avoid performing the supervisory and liaison tasks that required being in person, moving through her department and interacting with staff,” the court wrote. “The request was not for a reasonable accommodation because it would have allowed Kinney to avoid performing tasks essential to her job rather than helped her to accomplish them.”

The federal appellate panel affirmed summary judgment in favor of the hospital.

To read the opinion in Kinney v. St. Mary’s Health, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: The decision provides some peace of mind for employers facing requests to continue remote work after the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Seventh Circuit recognized that technological advances have made working from home more feasible—so that employers cannot rely on an automatic presumption that working from home is unreasonable—simply because a job was remote during COVID-19 doesn’t mean it will be reasonable to continue to be remote if an employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job from home.



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

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