In a July 17, 2018 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held “full-time presence at work is not an essential function.” In so holding, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer in the matter of Hostettler v. The College of Wooster that was based upon the proposition that full-time employment was an essential function of a human resources generalist position.
Heidi Hostettler was hired by the College of Wooster into a human resources generalist position while she was four months pregnant. Throughout the interview process, Hostettler was open about her pregnancy, and the employer offered her 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the FMLA even though she did not otherwise qualify for leave under the law. As part of Hostettler’s regular duties, she helped managers with performance improvement plans, participated in recruiting new hires, designed training programs, and answered phone calls and emails.
Hostettler took the full 12 weeks of maternity leave and was slated to return to work in April 2014. Prior to her scheduled return to work, she experienced severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. Hostettler’s physician determined it was medically necessary for her to work a reduced schedule and estimated the duration of her condition to be approximately six months. Hostettler returned to work in late May 2014, having been on leave longer than the originally agreed 12 weeks. The College of Wooster accommodated plaintiff’s reduced schedule allowing her to work five half-days per week until June 30, 2014, when she was asked to submit an additional medical certification for continued leave.
At the end of June 2014, Hostettler received a performance evaluation without any negative feedback. In contrast, Hostettler’s supervisor testified she was not performing some critical functions of her job on a reduced schedule, such as filling job openings and leading trainings or lunch programs. In mid-July, Hostettler submitted another medical certification from her physician requiring a reduced schedule until September. The following day she was terminated for inability to return the HR generalist position in a full-time capacity.
First, the Sixth Circuit rejected the College of Wooster’s argument that postpartum depression and separation anxiety is not a disability. Under the post-2008 amendments to the ADA, “the definition of a disability … shall be construed in favor of broad coverage.” 42 USC § 12102(4)(A). The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 42 USC § 12102(1)(A). Although Hostettler’s postpartum depression and separation anxiety “were episodic in nature,” the Sixth Circuit found that “makes no difference under the ADA [s]o long as the impairment would substantially limit a major life activity when active …”
Next, the Sixth Circuit turned to whether Hostettler could perform the essential functions of her position and, therefore, be otherwise qualified under the ADA. The appellate court repeatedly noted Hostettler’s positive performance reviews, lack of discipline, the absence of written criticism or performance improvement plans, and the testimony of a former co-worker establishing she continued to complete assigned tasks timely while on a reduced schedule. Thus, the court held that “full time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is.” Stated differently, “[a]n employer must tie time-and-presence requirements to some other job requirement” in order to establish full-time and physical presence at work as essential functions of a particular position.
For example, the court cited Williams v. AT&T, involving a call center employee whose work could not be performed remotely because physical presence was required to answer phones. In that case, the Sixth Circuit upheld predictable and regular presence was an essential function of that position. Similarly, the court cited EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., wherein the employer showed specific aspects of that plaintiff’s position could not be performed remotely and she had previously failed to complete prior telework assignments.
The Hostettler case serves as a stark warning to employers responding to accommodation requests for a reduced schedule or remote employment. Full-time employment and physical presence requirements cannot be assumed to be an essential function of a position. Instead, employers must be able to articulate specific, essential tasks for a position that cannot be completed remotely prior to denying such an accommodation request.