Court Says ADA Request for Telework Unreasonable

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Kansas Federal Courts, has clarified an employer’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when an employee requests to work remotely. Specifically, the court ruled that employers are not obligated to provide accommodations for non-work-related barriers, such as transportation issues.

The case arose after a clinical dietitian became legally blind and could no longer make the 120-mile round-trip commute to and from work. The hospital granted the employee’s request for a flexible work schedule to accommodate her transportation struggles, permitting her to work part-time from home, but requiring her to work a majority of her hours on-site. After 15 months, the hospital notified the employee that it would be ending the flexible work schedule, because her physical presence at the hospital was unpredictable and patient satisfaction had suffered. The employee then requested to telecommute full-time. The hospital denied her request, stating that her position required over four hours of in-person face-to-face interactions per day. The hospital eventually terminated employment, explaining that the essential functions of the position could not “be accommodated through telecommuting and irregular and unpredictable physical presence at the hospital.” 

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, which held that the employee’s requests for a flexible schedule without a set schedule or, in the alternative, to telecommute full-time, were unreasonable. A requested accommodation is unreasonable if it asks the employer to relieve the employee of an essential function of his or her position. Here, the hospital argued that the employee’s position required her to be physically present at the hospital for at least four hours per day and to have a set and predictable schedule to ensure quality patient care. The court stated that it would not “second guess the employer’s judgment” on whether a function is essential so long as the function is job-related, uniformly enforced, and consistent with business necessity. The court agreed that physical presence for at least four hours per day was an essential function and the employee’s requested accommodations would have relieved her of this function. As such, her requests were unreasonable. 

Last, the court stated that the requested accommodations were unreasonable “as a matter of common sense,” because they aimed to assist her with her transportation barrier, not to help her perform the essential functions of her job. Because transportation to and from work is not an essential function of the clinical dietitian position or a privilege of employment, the hospital was not required under the ADA to accommodate this transportation barrier. 

Unrein v. PHC-Fort Morgan, Inc., 993 F.3d 873 (10th Cir. 2021).

Madison Moore

Foulston Summer Associate