In Peeples v. Clinical Support Options, Inc., a Massachusetts federal district court temporarily granted an employee’s request for telework as a reasonable accommodation due to the employee’s documented moderate asthma. In reaching this conclusion, the court concluded that certain preexisting conditions that may subject an employee to a heightened risk of death or serious illness if the employee were to contract COVID-19 rise to the level of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The court noted that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the employee’s asthma substantially limits a major life activity, thus requiring an employer to engage in the interactive process required by the ADA. However, the court did allow the employer to seek additional documentation of the employee’s medical status.
The court then looked at the second critical issue, whether the employee still could perform the essential functions of his position while working remotely. This is a critical element—especially for school employees whose essential functions may not be able to be performed remotely. However, in this case, the employee’s immediate supervisor had written an email confirming that the employee was performing his essential functions from home. This detail was fatal to the employer’s argument that the employee needed to be in person to perform his essential functions. Notably, the court was not persuaded by the employer’s argument that it had accommodated the employee by providing KN95 face masks, hand sanitizer and wipes, an air purifier, and a separate, private work space. The court found these items to be workplace safety rules rather than an individualized accommodation to address the employee’s disability.
The court’s analysis is questionable in certain respects and may be distinguishable in the school context. However, it illustrates the challenges employers face in determining what medical conditions qualify as disabilities—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—and in determining whether and how to accommodate those disabilities. Employers should continue to evaluate employee remote-work requests on a case-by-case basis based on proper medical documentation and after engaging in an interactive discussion with the employee.
For questions about this case and accommodating employees under the ADA, please contact an attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group.