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Employee who rejected telework offer was responsible for breakdown of interactive process

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

He rejected the offer as “not a good option” for accommodating his allergic reactions but failed to explain why.

An EPA employee, who rejected telework as an accommodation for his allergic reactions to the office environment, was the reason the interactive process broke down, a federal district court in the District of Columbia explained. He failed to explain why he declined the offer and the court concluded that the employee’s reasonable accommodation claim should not proceed. Other claims by the pro se plaintiff, for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment, also failed to move forward, but the court found questions existed with regards to one claim regarding work assignments. The defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted in part (Ali v. Pruitt, October 19, 2020, Chutkan, T.).

Previous lawsuits and allergic reactions. After a few decades of employment with the EPA, during which he filed multiple lawsuits accusing the employer of discrimination, the plaintiff, who is an economist of Pakistani national origin, filed suit again based on his disability. He suffers from allergies, which leads him to have severe reactions such as bleeding, swelling, rashes, and difficulty breathing. He had a private office for many years because of his condition, but after a building renovation and space reallocation, he was placed in a cubicle. He was “forced” to work from home for a period of time, but that arrangement was rescinded. He returned to working in a cubicle, with mixed results.

Cologne-wearing coworker. One of the reasons for the mixed results from working in a cubicle was exposure to another employee who used strong perfumes. He was moved away from that employee in 2007, but in 2011 they were situated in close proximity to one another again when the coworker’s office was turned into a conference room. The fallout from that new cubicle arrangement ultimately led to this lawsuit. The employer was aware that it would cause a problem—they had spoken to the coworker about his “cologne issue” in the past and asked him to “tone it down.” They knew that it would have a negative effect on the plaintiff and another employee with asthma. Therefore, it was unsurprising when the plaintiff informed them he was having an allergic reaction after the cologne-wearing coworker was moved nearby.

Offered telework, declined. Other placements for the plaintiff were discussed over the following weeks and the employee was asked to submit further medical documentation. The employee was seeking a private office, but the employer offered several reasons for rejecting that idea. Ultimately, it offered the employee full-time telework as an accommodation. It told the employee that if that accommodation were to prove ineffective, it would then consider other accommodations. However, the employee rejected the telework offer, stating only that it was “not a good option.” He ultimately moved to another cubicle but continued to request an office over the following years.

Accommodation claim out. He filed suit alleging that, among other things, the employer failed to accommodate his disability. The employer argued that the department in which he worked had no private offices available and that it had offered the employee reasonable accommodations, which he had refused. While the court was not persuaded that the employee had rejected all offers of accommodation (he did explore other cubicle placements to try to find one that was less problematic), it concluded that blame for the breakdown of the interactive process did lie with the employee. When the employee had concluded that a cubicle move would not help the situation, the employer offered him the ability to work from home. Without further explanation, he rejected that as “not a good option.” However, the employer was aware that he had worked from home previously without any apparent issues. It had also indicated a willingness to consider other accommodations if the telework accommodation proved ineffective. However, it was “stymied” by the employee’s refusal to explain why working from home was not a viable option. Therefore, the court found that the employee failed to act in good faith during the interactive process.

Discriminatory assignment claim remains. With regards to the employee’s other claims, the only one that survived the employer’s motion was his claim of disparate treatment stemming from the allegation that the employer failed to provide him with certain types of assignments. Those assignments—cost-benefit analyses—were given to younger, mostly Caucasian employees, according to the plaintiff, and the failure to receive them had a negative impact on his advancement. Neither party supported nor explained the contentions it made with regards to this claim, so the court denied without prejudice the summary judgment motion.

Other claims out. It granted the employer’s motion with regards to other claims of discrimination—based on disability, age, gender, national origin, and race—and retaliation that were made by the employee, however. With regards to race, for example, the employee argued that African-American supervisors had deliberately placed the cologne-wearing coworker, who was also African-American, next to him because of discriminatory animus. He also claimed that he was denied leadership opportunities, but that women were awarded the positions instead. His supervisor testified that he had not shown the qualifies that would make him an effective team leader, noting that he failed to return phone calls or to read emails and that he was late to meetings or skipped them entirely. There was no suggestion that those reasons were pretextual, the court explained.