The case of Brownlow v. Alfa Vision Insurance Co., No. 3:18-cv-01241 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 22, 2021), involves a set of facts from pre-COVID times (2016 and 2017 to be exact). Mr. Brownlow, a former claims appraiser for an automobile insurance company, was diagnosed with a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and PTSD. He requested and was granted the ability to telework as a reasonable accommodation for a period of many months and was told this would not be a long-term or permanent solution. He also took FMLA leave during this time. Mr. Brownlow asked to continue teleworking and his employer denied the request, stating that his presence in the office was an essential part of his job and continued telework was not reasonable. Ultimately, Mr. Brownlow was terminated for failing to return to work and then sued his former employer.
As a claims adjuster, Mr. Brownlow’s primary duties were to “write original and supplemental estimates for property damage claims under automobile policies by reviewing photographs of damaged vehicles.” The parties disagreed whether he was an inside or outside claims adjuster. The written job description for both positions was identical so there was also a dispute about whether they were actually different positions, although the employer asserted that the internal adjusters needed to work in the office. The parties disputed whether in-office attendance was required for the internal adjuster position but agreed the external adjuster position was often performed remotely.
In denying summary judgment, the federal district court noted that nothing in his job description required him to be present in the office because his tasks could all be performed remotely. The court focused very much on the notion that “whether a job function is essential is a question of fact that is typically not suitable for resolution on a motion for summary judgment” and the employer’s statements that the job is better performed when the person is present in the office to fully interact with his colleagues was not sufficient to defeat summary judgment.
This past year has revealed to many employers and employees that remote work may not be a vacation day in disguise and that employees can be productive. That said, not all positions are designed to be performed remotely and certainly not performed remotely for the long-term. While this was not a case about a request for teleworking due to a COVID-related reason, the lessons learned from this case should be kept in mind in for all telework situations, including those informed by COVID. If you want to insist that your employees to be present at the work site (whether office, call center, production line, or otherwise), the job description and the realities of how the job is performed need to align with that sentiment.
Stating that an employee’s job is performed better when the employee is “on-site” so that colleagues can talk directly, trouble shoot, problem-solve and rely upon each other for better results is, at least per this case, perhaps a statement of the obvious but not a reason that justifies denying a request for telework. Actual, clear reasons as to why the essential job functions need to be performed in office and not remotely will need to be articulated and backed up by what is actually happening in the workplace otherwise.