If You Can’t Be an Inspiration, at Least Be a Cautionary Tale

A recent case should be a heads-up to employers who receive ADA requests for part-time hours as a “reasonable accommodation.”

In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, decided earlier this summer, the Sixth Circuit Court determined that working full time might not be an “essential job function” in some cases.  The Court noted that the employer was rescinding a previously granted reasonable accommodation and not evaluating the reasonableness of the accommodation in the first instance.  This case also illustrates the old (and unfortunately sometimes true) adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In the case, the employee (Hostettler) originally went out on 12 weeks of maternity leave.  After Hostettler delivered her child, she suffered post-partum depression and separation anxiety and requested to delay her return to work.  The employer agreed to additional maternity leave.

Subsequently, Hostettler requested to return to work on a part-time schedule, which the employer granted until June 30.  The employee continued to work part-time but did not submit a new certification by June 30.  During the first two weeks of July, she received a positive performance review, and had only one conversation during which management told her she needed to return to work full-time.  At the end of the first two weeks of July, the employee submitted her doctor’s certification that she needed to continue to work part-time and that she could probably return to work full-time in September.  The employee also sought to extend her part-time hours, previously set from 8 a.m. to noon, lengthening it by a couple of hours to go from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m.  The next day, she was terminated specifically for being unable to return to work full-time.

Notwithstanding other arguments made by the employer, the Court concluded the crux of the case was whether being able to work full-time was an “essential job function.”  If working 40 hours a week were an essential job function (EJF), then the employee could be deemed to be unqualified and the employer would not be required to provide a part-time schedule as an accommodation.  If a full-time schedule were not an EJF, then the Court would have to evaluate the reasonableness of the requested part-time schedule accommodation.

The court pointed out that although the Circuit precedent was that “[r]egular, in-person attendance is an essential function” of most jobs, it was not an absolute rule and that the court was required to look at the particular facts, including “the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the particular function.”  The court noted that “the employer’s judgment receives some weight” but that “it is not the end-all—especially when an employee puts forth competing evidence.”  The Court pointed to an affidavit from one of the employee’s colleagues that she accomplished all of her job duties on a part-time schedule and the employer’s own positive evaluation of the employee while she was on a part-time schedule in support of its finding that the employee made out a prima facie case that working full-time was NOT an essential element of her job.

A wise employer will learn at least three lessons from this case:

  • You may have to accommodate a request for part-time hours to address a bona fide disability unless you can establish that having the employee at work in a particular location on a full-time basis is in fact an EJF. You should not assume that your belief that the position is a full-time one will be upheld.
  • Good HR and employee management sometimes calls for adjusting work roles and work rules to keep your valued and highly productive employees on board. A wise employer interested in getting more work for less money should be delighted to pay an employee a less that full-time salary for performing the requirements of a full-time position.  Thus, accommodating valuable employees pays off in morale, retention, and the bottom line.
  • And last but not least, this case reminds us once again, honest and forthright evaluations are an essential foundation for taking action in the workplace. If the part-time schedule had truly been problematic for the employer, then that should have been a critical element of the early July evaluation. An honest evaluation could have saved Wooster College a lot of money.

If you have any questions about your leave policies or specific accommodation requests, please reach out to one of our lawyers at the Forrest Firm. We are ready to help you manage employment-related risks and maintain a fair workplace.