By Katie Lynn Zorc

We are living in a different world today then we were just a couple weeks ago.  COVID-19 has forced many employers to temporary shut their doors, while others attempt to find creative ways to allow employees to work remotely.  One question that will no doubt continue to arise during these strange times is: When must an employer grant an employee’s request to work from home?

With regard to disabled employees pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Sixth Circuit has recently provided some guidance.  See Tchankpa v. Ascena Retail Group, Inc., 6th Cir. No. 19-3291, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 7060 (Mar. 6, 2020).  Tchankpa was decided prior to COVID-19 being declared a pandemic and prior to many states issuing Stay-Home Orders.  Nonetheless, it is instructive. 

In Tchankpa, the Sixth Circuit affirmed that an employee requesting to work from home as a reasonable accommodation for their disability must provide their employer upon request with documentation that specifically states that it is medically necessary that they work from home. 

In Tchankpa, an employee/plaintiff database manager injured his shoulder while transporting his laptop to work.  While he received treatment for the same, he asked his employer to allow him to work from home, but his employer refused.  The employee argued that he experienced pain while driving to work and transporting his laptop, which would be resolved by working from home. He also argued that other employees had been permitted to work from home in the past. When the employer refused to allow this accommodation, he alleged he was forced to quit (i.e. was “constructively discharged”) rather than experience pain, and sued his employer for disability discrimination. 

While affirming summary judgment to the employer, the Sixth Circuit held that when an employer asks for written documentation from an employee’s physician specifically stating that it was medically necessary for him to work from home, the employee must provide the documentation or the request can be denied.  This is true even if the employee provides some documentation that reflects his disability and need for an accommodation, as the documentation must specifically state that working from home must be the accommodation, and that it is medically necessary.  In Tchankpa, the documentation provided was insufficient, and the request was properly denied.

The Tchankpa Court also held that consideration must be given to whether this work from home accommodation was necessary and reasonable.  The Court elaborated, “[t]he ADA is not a weapon that employees can wield to pressure employers into granting unnecessary accommodations or reconfiguring their business operations. Instead, it protects disabled employees from disability-related mistreatment—no more, no less.”   Tchankpa at *2. 

Finally, in a surprisingly poetic passage, the Court quoted John Milton to prove its point on the subjectivity of the employee’s constructive discharge claim.  Though he may find his employer’s treatment to be “hell,” the Court quoted: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, and Hell of Heav’n.”  Id. at *16, quoting John Milton Paradise Lost at 9 (1667). 

Celestial references aside, Tchankpa is a case that employers should pay attention to, especially in times like these, where work from home requests will likely become all the more common.

If you would like a full copy of the Tchankpa opinion or if you have any other questions related to work from home requests or reasonable accommodations, feel free to call upon one of our experts in Reminger’s Employment Practices Defense Practice Group.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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