Often, an employee will present a doctor’s note recommending telework, or saying an employee may return to work remotely. Suppose the employee’s job can be performed remotely. Does the employer have to allow telework? Or is the employer entitled to more information before deciding what to do? In Owens v. Georgia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently explained what information a disabled employer must provide to her employer to trigger the employer’s duty of reasonable accommodation.
Nicole Owens worked in the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (“GOSA”) as a web content specialist. Owens had a high-risk pregnancy, and she was approved for FMLA leave from “early 2018 until July 20, 2018.” GOSA policy required an employee returning from FMLA leave to present a medical release containing any work restrictions and the duration of those restrictions.
Owens gave birth by c-section on July 18, 2018. In early August 2018, GOSA notified Owens that her FMLA was exhausted, and she was on unpaid leave as of July 20, 2018. Owens responded that she would return to work remotely on August 6, 2018. In support of her return, Owens presented a physician’s note which said that Owens “delivered a baby by cesarean on 7/18/2018,” “is doing well,” and “may return to work via telework from her home.” GOSA initially approved telework on a temporary basis, and Owens resumed work remotely on August 6, 2018.
Owens had an important follow up medical appointment scheduled for September 11, 2018, and GOSA asked Owens how it went. Owens responded that she would need to continue working remotely until November 5, 2018, because of complications from her c-section. Owens gave GOSA another doctor’s note. This one stated Owens “may return to work on November 5, 2018” and “may continue to telework at home until then.” The note contained nothing about any medical conditions or the medical necessity of teleworking.
GOSA believed the doctor’s note was ambiguous and lacked enough information to evaluate Owens’s request to continue teleworking. Also, Owens’s supervisor had begun expressing concerns about Owens’s productivity and responsiveness while teleworking. GOSA therefore believed it was important to ensure the teleworking accommodation was necessary, and not just Owens’s personal preference.
GOSA sent Owens reasonable accommodation paperwork. Owens and her physician were asked to provide information verifying Owens’s disability, the physical or mental limitations caused by that disability, and how those limitations restricted Owens’s ability to perform her job functions. GOSA also asked Owens and her physician to identify any workplace accommodations that would allow Owens to perform her job functions. GOSA instructed Owens to submit the additional documentation by October 10, 2018, or to return to the office by October 11, 2018. When Owens did neither, GOSA terminated her employment. In response, Owens sued GOSA alleging that GOSA failed to accommodate her disability. As a government employee, Owens brought her claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The legal standards mirror those under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Court held that Owens had an initial burden to show that she requested an accommodation and demonstrate that her request was reasonable. The Court wrote that establishing her request was reasonable required Owens to put GOSA on notice of her disability and provide enough information for GOSA to understand how the requested accommodation would assist her. According to the Court, while Owens requested telework as an accommodation, she did not identify any disability from which she suffered or provide GOSA any information about how teleworking would accommodate the disability. Therefore, Owens was not permitted to pursue this claim.
Generally, an employee must identify her disability before her employer is obligated to engage in an interactive process about accommodating that disability. Further, the employee must identify some physical or mental limitations imposed by her condition. An employee must also provide her employer enough information to assess how a proposed accommodation would help overcome those limitations. In other words, the disability must be linked to the requested accommodation by explaining how the requested accommodation could alleviate the workplace challenges posed by the specific disability. Sometimes that link is obvious, but often it is not. A lack of information may prevent an employer from responding effectively to an accommodation request.
Remember, an employer is not required to grant any accommodation an employee desires or provide an employee’s preferred accommodation, such as telework. An employer is permitted to explore alternative accommodations and identify one that is mutually agreeable, or at least one that effectively allows the employee to perform essential job functions. To go through this process, an employer needs information about the nature of the limitations imposed by the disability and how the desired accommodation addresses those limitations. In Owens’s case, the Court thought it was reasonable for Owens to inform her employer how the accommodation she sought (telework) would address whatever her limitations were before requiring GOSA to engage in further discussion.