Fourth Circuit Upholds Employer's Denial of Remote Work During Pandemic

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein LLP

During the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards, employers have faced a growing number of requests for remote work arrangements based on a medical disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to grant reasonable accommodations that permit the qualified disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) affirmed the dismissal of an ADA lawsuit where an employee claimed she was denied a remote work arrangement and later terminated in retaliation for making the request.

In Crews-Sanchez v. Frito-Lay Inc., the plaintiff was an environmental health and safety (EHS) manager who disclosed that she had an immune deficiency disorder and requested remote work during the pandemic. The employer denied the request on the basis that she could not perform the essential functions of the job from home. She was terminated over three months later for disclosing to a minor league baseball team — that also employed a Frito-Lay employee — that the employee had violated COVID-19 isolation protocols.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit, agreeing that the employee could not perform her job functions remotely. The reasons provided by the employer and the amount of time that passed between the accommodation request and the termination undercut her retaliation claims.

This decision does not break any new legal ground or give employers some blanket ability to deny remote work requests. It seems rather obvious that an EHS manager needs to be at work to assure safe operations. However, this case demonstrates that employers can deny ADA accommodation requests that may not present an obvious undue hardship, if the employees cannot perform essential job functions with the requested accommodation in place.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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