An in-house lawyer with Memphis Light, Gas & Water can keep the more than $110,000 she was awarded for the municipal utility’s failure to allow her to work from home for 10 weeks after a doctor placed her on “modified bed rest” because of complications with her pregnancy, a federal appeals court ruled.
The Feb. 21 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit clarifies the court’s prior case law on when an employee’s physical presence in the workplace is a required “essential function” of the job for purposes of federal disability discrimination law. Going into the office regularly is an essential requirement of most jobs, the court said, but whether it’s required for any specific job comes down to the facts of the case.
The decision should provide useful guidance to employers doing business in and employees working in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, in addition to Tennessee.
The evidence Andrea Mosby-Meachem put before the jury was sufficient for it to reasonably find that she could have telecommuted during the 10 weeks in question, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons said, rejecting Memphis Light’s arguments to the contrary. Mosby-Meachem presented the testimony of co-workers and an outside attorney she worked with stating that she could have done all of her job from home for 10 weeks, the judge said.
She also showed that although she had worked as a Memphis Light attorney for eight years before her need to work from home arose, she had never been required to try any cases or to depose witnesses, two of the duties the utility’s job description for her position noted as requiring in-person attendance, the court said. The jury also heard testimony that the utility’s job description was based on an outdated questionnaire that didn’t reflect technological advances and other changes to the job, the court said.
That Memphis Light may have presented other evidence supporting its contention that a physical presence was a must for its in-house lawyers didn’t undermine the jury’s finding, based on Mosby-Meachem’s evidence, that it wasn’t, Gibbons said, citing the deference courts give to jury verdicts. The verdict for Mosby-Meachem came under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The jury found for Memphis Light on her pregnancy discrimination claim under Tennessee state law.
The parties didn’t respond Feb. 21 to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.
Utility’s Other Arguments Also Rejected
Mosby-Meachem had focused primarily on labor, employment, and workers’ compensation law during her eight years with the utility before developing health issues in January 2013 while she was 23-weeks pregnant, the court said. She previously had three miscarriages, and the pregnancy-related complications she experienced in 2013 required her hospitalization and surgery.
She provided her supervisor with a doctor’s note recommending 10 weeks of post-surgery bed rest. She also submitted an official job accommodation request to Memphis Light asking to work from home for that period. However, an ADA committee assembled by the utility denied her request and she was forced to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and short-term disability leave to cover her absence, the court said.
Mosby-Meachem sued in state court, and Memphis Light removed the case to federal court. The jury awarded her $92,000 in compensatory damages on her ADA claim, and the trial judge later added $18,184 in back pay. He also reinstated the leave benefits she had used to cover her absence after her request to telecommute was denied.
The Sixth Circuit distinguished its earlier decisions in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. and another case from the situation the jury found Mosby-Meachem confronted. The employee in Ford Motor, for example, wanted to work from home up to four days per week indefinitely, not for the limited period Mosby-Meachem sought, the court said.
It also rejected Memphis Light’s argument that it otherwise reasonably accommodated Mosby-Meachem by allowing her to use medical and short-term disability leave to cover her absence. The utility waived that argument by not raising it earlier in the case, the court said.
But even if Memphis Light hadn’t waived that argument, it was reasonable for the jury to conclude that the utility failed to engage in the interactive dialogue the ADA requires of employers once an employee seeks an accommodation, Gibbons said. The judge cited evidence that the utility had already determined what it was willing to offer Mosby-Meachem in the way of accommodations before ever talking to her. And evidence that Mosby-Meachem didn’t experience any financial hardship as a result of the accommodation denial—which the trial judge barred the utility from introducing—wasn’t needed to assess the reasonableness of her request, the court said.
Mosby-Meachem counsel’s reference to her client’s ADA expertise didn’t unfairly prejudice the jury, the court said. In fact, that evidence was needed to establish Mosby-Meachem’s qualifications for her attorney position, the court said. That the verdict form the jury was given wasn’t “as good as” the one proposed by Memphis Light didn’t mean the form mislead or confused the jury, the court said, rejecting the utility’s alternative argument for a new trial.
Judges Ralph B. Guy Jr. and Deborah L. Cook joined the opinion.
Apollo Law LLC and Donati Law Firm LLP represented Mosby-Meachem. Glankler Brown PLLC represented Memphis Light.
The case is Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div., 2018 BL 57212, 6th Cir., No. 17-5483, verdict and judgment affirmed 2/21/18.
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