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In-person visits were essential job function so request to temporarily work at home was unreasonable

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Despite a Honda employee’s claim he could have performed the essential functions of his job if he had been allowed to work remotely from his home office on a temporary basis, a federal court in Colorado found his request for an at-home accommodation would have relieved him of an essential job function, conducting in-person visits to dealerships, and was thus unreasonable on its face. His retaliation claim—he was terminated after he violated his leave of absence terms by contacting dealerships—also failed on summary judgment (Goodwin v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., September 10, 2018, Brimmer, P.).

As a senior district parts and service manager (DPSM), the employee traveled extensively, conducting in-person visits to dealerships, personally observing parts and service operations, verifying the accuracy of dealer reports, inspecting inventory, handling customer complaints, and assessing vehicles for problems. As part of a district reorganization in 2014, he was transferred from the Utah/Western Colorado District to the Denver District. He lived in a hotel in Denver during the week, commuting back home to Salt Lake City on the weekends.

Panic attack. Several weeks after the transfer, he experienced a panic attack while visiting a dealership. Subsequently diagnosed with anxiety and depression, he was granted a leave of absence from work. Near the end of his leave, he presented a noted from his doctor requesting his duties be confined to Salt Lake City for the next month. Arguing that would eliminate an essential function of his position, Honda rejected the proposed accommodation and instead allowed him to remain on leave provided he did not continue to work. The employee, however, continued to contact dealerships through his personal email.

Terminated. After his leave was extended another month, the employee again requested that his duties be confined to Salt Lake City for an unknown period of time. Rejecting this request, Honda offered him continued medical leave or reassignment to a Utah-based job when one became available. The employee subsequently requested that a job be transferred to Salt Lake City and that he be assigned to fill it. But this request was rejected as the positon required even more travel. When the employee continued to contact dealerships, despite repeated warnings to stop, he was terminated.

Qualified? At issue in his failure-to-accommodate and discriminatory discharge claims was whether he was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, which Honda argued included conducting in-person visits to dealerships in the Denver area. In order to determine whether a function is essential, the court noted that it considers five factors: (1) the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; (2) written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job; (3) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (4) the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; and (5) the work experience of past incumbents in the job.

Factors. As to the first factor, there was testimony that “[o]ne of the most essential functions of the DPSM position is face-to-face contact with dealership employees and customers because the majority of parts and service operations’ performance is contingent upon customer satisfaction and sales.” Indeed, the employee acknowledged that being at a dealership was one of his “critical” responsibilities as a DPSM. The second factor also weighed in favor of Honda, said the court, noting that the written job description stated that the DPSM is a “direct liaison between Honda Parts and Service Field Operations and Honda automobile dealerships” and listed “frequent travel” among the necessary qualifications.

Turning to the third factor, the amount of time spent performing the job function, the employee testified that he traveled to dealerships at least 75 percent of the time and each visit lasted anywhere from three to 10 hours. Further, Honda told all DPSM candidates that travel and relocation were core components of the job. These factors, said the court, supported a finding that conducting in-person dealership visits was an essential job function.

Reasonable accommodation. The employee argued, however, that he could have performed his job’s essential functions had he been allowed to work remotely from his home office on a temporary basis until the most effective medication could be discovered. But because conducting in-person visits to Denver-are dealerships was an essential function of his position, his request for an at-home accommodation was unreasonable on its face. Nor did his emphasis on the temporary nature of the accommodation alter this conclusion, said the court, pointing out that he did not cite any evidence that he provided Honda with an estimated date by which he could have resumed his travel duties.

Retaliation. Nor could he prevail on his retaliation claim. Even assuming the employee established a prima facie case, he failed to show that Honda’s stated reasons for terminating him—he rejected it reasonable accommodation and violated his leave of absence terms—were pretextual. While he claimed he was not being insubordinate when he contacted the dealerships, but was instead resisting Honda’s efforts to starve him out and to prevent him from being able to do his job, there was no evidence Honda’s actions were motivated by an improper purpose. As to his assertion Honda was trying to stymie his efforts to return to work, it was undisputed his medical issues prevented him from traveling and conducting in-person visits to Denver-area dealerships and Honda was not required to permit him to work remotely. Thus, Honda’s only remaining option, said the court, was keep him on unpaid leave until he was able to perform the essential functions of his position or a Utah-based position became available.

Finally, the court rejected the employee’s contention that there was little competent evidence to support Honda’s claim it prohibited him from contacting dealers in order to prevent confusion. To the contrary, said the court, the evidence showed various dealers were confused as to who should be their DPSM contact because the employee had contacted them via his personal cell phone number and email account. And while he argued that Honda could have prevented any confusion by allowing him to work remotely, the court again pointed out that Honda was not required to grant his request for an in-home accommodation.