A North Carolina federal trial court recently denied an employer’s request to dismiss a former employee’s disability discrimination and retaliation claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The case provides a helpful reminder of why employers must be ready to articulate and provide concrete support for any alleged “undue hardship” a requested reasonable accommodation would create before denying it. 

This article originally was published in the Midsouth Employment Law Letter.

Case Facts

In 2002, Mohammed Imam began his employment with Cumberland County’s Information Services Technology Department.  Imam was able to perform his tasks remotely, and as a result, often telecommuted from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

On August 11, 2016, Imam’s physician diagnosed him with deep vein thrombosis ("DVT") in his right leg. On August 16, 2016, the physician sent a letter to the county informing it of the condition and requesting that he be permitted to work from home for two weeks until the blood clot in his leg stabilized. The county granted the request. 

On September 6, 2016, after Imam had commuted for two weeks, the county added “operational duties” to Imam’s job description.  Such “operational duties” could not be performed remotely, and Imam had previously not been required to perform such duties.  Before the county added these duties to Imam’s job description, two county employees had been responsible for performing them, and there were other employees trained on how to complete them.  

 A few days later, on September 15, Imam’s physician sent another letter to the county advising that Imam’s DVT had additional complications and requesting that the county permit him to telecommute for an additional two to three months.  The county refused this request, indicating that Imam’s new operational job duties (which, according to the county, comprised 30% of his duties) required him to work on-site daily. 

On October 20, Imam met with county personnel to discuss the operational duties. The county again denied Imam’s request that he work remotely and informed him that he was expected to report to work on November 3. After Imam failed to do so, he was terminated on November 14.  Following Imam’s termination, the employees who had previously been performing the operational duties continued to do so for an additional six months, at which point the duties transitioned to two other employees already on staff. 

In December 2017, Imam sued the county for discrimination and retaliation under the ADA.  The county moved for summary judgment (i.e., a motion before trial asserting that there is no dispute as to any material fact and that the requesting party is entitled to a favorable ruling under applicable law), which the trial court denied.  

In denying the county’s motion and allowing the case to proceed to trial, the court said, among other things, that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to why the county could not accommodate Imam’s second request for additional telecommuting.  In this regard, the court cited the fact that the same individuals who performed the operational responsibilities before they were assigned to Imam performed them for an additional six to seven months following Imam’s termination.  In addition, the court noted that, when the duties were ultimately reassigned, they were assigned to other personnel already on staff.  

The “Undue Hardship” Trap  

While the ADA does not require employers to transfer the essential functions of a disabled employee’s position to other employees or hire an individual to perform the essential functions of the position, the ADA may require that an employer reallocate or redistribute marginal job functions that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability, so long as doing so would not cause an undue hardship on the employer.   

While employers may be tempted to decline reasonable accommodations, such as reallocating marginal job functions, on the basis that it would be inconvenient, the ADA requires a greater showing—a reasonable accommodation that allows an employee to perform the essential functions of his/her position must create an “undue hardship” in order for the employer to be able to reject it.  To demonstrate an “undue hardship,” employers must be able to show the change would entail “significant difficulty or expense;” would be “unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive;” or “would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business.”  As this standard is often more difficult to meet than employers may realize, before denying a reasonable accommodation request on this basis, employers should ensure they can articulate and provide concrete support for the alleged hardship.