The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities, including allowing modified work schedules when appropriate. One federal appellate court has addressed that issue, overlaid with the question of accommodating an employee’s postpartum depression after FMLA leave, and has held that a lower court wrongly concluded that full-time presence was an essential function of the employee’s position. Hostettler v. College of Wooster, 6th Cit., No. 17-3406, July 17, 2018.
Heidi Hostettler was fired by her employer, the College of Wooster, while recovering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety after the birth of her child. Because of her condition, Hostettler was unable to return to her job in the college’s HR Department on a full-time basis after a leave of absence.
Here are the facts, as viewed by the courts:
- Hostettler was hired as an HR Generalist by Wooster in late summer 2013;
- During the interview process, Hostettler informed Wooster that she was pregnant;
- Wooster’s practice was to allow a new employee 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), even if the employee did not otherwise qualify;
- Until the birth of her child in February 2014, Hostettler worked full-time, typically from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., with some calls and emails during off hours and weekends;
- Hostettler was never criticized, reprimanded, or disciplined prior to the birth of her child;
- From February to April, Hostettler took 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave;
- Toward the end of her leave, Hostettler was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety;
- Believing that Hostettler was suffering from “one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had seen, Hostettler’s doctor provided a restriction that Hostettler return on a part-time basis only, working a total of two or three days a week;
- Hostettler’s supervisor (Beasley) agreed to that accommodation, suggesting that Hostettler work 5 half-days per week;
- Hostettler agreed, and returned to work in late May on that schedule;
- Hostettler’s performance evaluation, conducted in July 2014, contained no negative feedback, and referred to Hostettler as a “great colleague and a welcome addition to the HR team!”;
- However, Beasley felt that Hostettler’s part-time schedule was beginning to put a strain on the rest of the department;
- That perception was not shared by Hostettler’s co-workers, one of whom submitted an affidavit saying that Hostettler could accomplish work from home – a common practice in the department – and knew of no assignments or programs that Hostettler had failed to complete “professionally or timely” on her part-time schedule;
- Hostettler was never criticized, reprimanded, or disciplined during the period of her part-time work;
- In mid-July, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification estimating that she could return to a full-time schedule in early September;
- The day after receiving that updated certification, Beasley fired Hostettler on the premise that the department could not function appropriately unless Hostettler could return to full-time work immediately;
- Hostettler’s position was not filled until October;
- Hostettler sued Wooster, claiming violation of Title VII’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the ADA, and the FMLA.
The district court granted Wooster’s motion for summary judgment on all claims on the basis that full-time presence was an essential function of the HR Generalist position. The district court held that because Hostettler could not satisfy that essential function or suggest a reasonable accommodation that allowed her to meet that essential function, Hostettler was not a “qualified individual” protected by the ADA. That initial conclusion also formed the basis of the district court’s remaining analysis.
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit disagreed, reversing the dismissal and remanding the case back for trial on all issues. According to the Sixth Circuit, the district court wrongly concluded that full-time presence was an essential function of Hostettler’s position. First, Hostettler was able to point to two employees who had received longer period of medical leave for non-pregnancy conditions. Further, and importantly, the Court held that an employer “cannot deny a modified work schedule as unreasonable unless the employer can show why the employee is needed on a full-time schedule.” Without that, an employer is not relieved of its ADA responsibilities.
There’s an important lesson here: to avoid summary judgment on the “full-time presence as an essential function” issue, an employer must specifically tie time-and-presence requirements to some other work-related requirement, and optimally should have documentation of the same. Because Wooster failed in that regard – and simply said that Hostettler’s absence was “putting a strain on the department” – the case will go back to the district court for trial.