A Defense Health Agency (DHA) Healthcare Fraud Specialist (HCFS) who worked in a four-person team could not establish that remote work was a reasonable accommodation for his position, ruled the 10th United States Court of Appeals.
In April 2010, DHA hired the Complainant as an HCFS assigned to the Program Integrity Office (PIO) in Aurora, Colorado. As the HCFS, the complainant coordinated with various law enforcement agencies to investigate fraud in the military health care system. Along with two other healthcare fraud specialists, the Applicant was part of a four-person team led by his immediate supervisor. His second level supervisor was the director of the PIO.
Shortly after being hired, the complainant told his supervisors that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other panic and anxiety disorders related to his military service. The complainant also told them that these conditions affected his ability to manage stress, concentrate and communicate, and that the stressful environments worsened his symptoms and caused panic attacks. Despite his disabilities, the grievor received satisfactory performance reviews.
When the complainant’s symptoms worsened in September 2011, he was hospitalized and was hospitalized for a week. The agency approved his request for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and continued to approve FMLA leave after he returned to work, ultimately approving 12 weeks in his first two years of employment. job.
In May 2012, the complainant formally requested accommodations for his disabilities. Among other things, the applicant wanted to work remotely twice a week and work on weekends to make up for lost time. The agency rejected those requests but allowed him to telecommute one day a week, even though office policy at the time only allowed one day of telecommuting every two weeks.
The agency also cut off the complainant’s air travel, a function it deemed non-essential to its work. He provided her with noise-canceling headphones and sent employees an email reminding them to reduce noise levels around the cabins. The complainant rejected other measures proposed by the agency to reduce office stress, including moving his cubicle to a less frequented area, raising the walls of his cubicle and allowing wellness breaks unpaid.
The complainant met with his immediate supervisor to request a transfer to the team of another supervisor. The supervisor refused the request because the other supervisor had no position available on his team at the time. About a year later, he asked the PIO director for a supervisor exchange after a dispute with his immediate supervisor. This request was denied.
During the applicant’s remaining time at the agency, he had strained relations with his supervisors. In September 2013, he had a heated argument with his supervisor after his supervisor asked him for more work on a case investigation. The supervisor claimed that the complainant threw a file at him and the PIO director sent the complainant a letter of reprimand.
In July 2014, the grievor emailed his supervisor, claiming that he had been biased and that he had been warned in his denial of another supervisor transfer request. The supervisor responded and explained his decision, criticized the complainant’s bad attitude, refuted any discrimination and encouraged the complainant to report any complaints. The complainant resigned nine days later and sued the agency under the Rehabilitation Act for failing to take into account his disabilities and discriminating against him.
The district court granted summary judgment for the agency on all of the plaintiff’s claims. On appeal, the complainant claimed that the district court had wrongly concluded that his request for telework was unreasonable in law. The court concluded that the physical presence in the office was not essential just because the agency had said so, but that it should assess the applicant’s evidence that it was unrelated to the job, applied uniformly or in accordance with commercial necessity.
The court found that at that time the agency files were in paper format and were typically two inches to three feet thick. So, for the applicant to be able to work from home, considerable digitization would be required, which would take a lot of time and administrative resources.
The court further found that the complainant needed to interact with law enforcement partners, which required him to be in the office on weekdays, not weekends. The court ruled that a transfer to another supervisor was unreasonable and upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims.
Brown v. Austin, 10th Cir., N ° 20-1049 (Sep 15, 2021).
Professional pointer: Advances in technology and the use of remote working during the pandemic have strengthened the arguments of employees with disabilities in favor of teleworking as a reasonable accommodation. Nonetheless, employers whose jobs require team interaction may require an in-person presence.
Jeffrey Rhodes is a lawyer with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Virginia.