- An American Airlines (AA) employee with multiple sclerosis who had a long-standing work-from-home arrangement was no longer qualified for her position after a department restructuring that required more in-person employee involvement, according to a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision (Bilinsky v. American Airlines, Inc., No. 18-3107 (7th Cir. June 26, 2019)).
- The employee lived in Chicago and traveled to AA’s Dallas headquarters about once a week; she did not want to live in Dallas full-time because hot weather exacerbated her symptoms. Following a corporate merger in 2013, her department transitioned from primarily written work to in-person events and crisis management functions. When various accommodation options failed (including AA jobs in Chicago the employee was either unqualified for or uninterested in) and the employee refused to relocate to Dallas, she was terminated.
- Although the employee had successfully worked from home for years, the job responsibilities of everyone in her department changed with the 2013 restructuring. When that happened, AA "determined that its remote arrangements were insufficient to meet business demands, and it uniformly rescinded those arrangements with all its employees, disabled and non-disabled alike," said the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Accordingly, the 7th Circuit upheld a district court's ruling of summary judgment in favor of AA.
The facts of this case are somewhat unusual, but they highlight the importance of maintaining current, accurate job descriptions for all positions (even though AA won this case, it did not have a written job description for the employee).
Courts look at job descriptions to help determine the essential and non-essential functions of a job, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in a guidance document that "a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job will be considered by EEOC as evidence of essential functions."
While telework can often be a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it's not appropriate for every job. Experts say it's important for HR to really think through an appropriate remote work policy. Considerations should include which positions are eligible (and who decides), what tools remote workers need to do their jobs, and how to ensure sufficient interaction between coworkers.