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IT employee could perform essential functions from home; ADA claim proceeds

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Having removed an IT engineer’s supervisor responsibility, the employer failed to convince a federal district court in Massachusetts that his presence at the office was an essential function, particularly since he had been successfully performing his duties from home for years. Denying summary judgment on the employee’s ADA and state law discrimination claims, the court also found triable questions on whether his severe depression substantially limited a major life activity and whether his termination was at least in part because of his disability. For one thing, there was a question whether a server crash just before he was fired could reasonably have been viewed as his fault (Moebius v. TharpeRobbins Co., November 1, 2016, Bowler, M.).

For years, the employee performed well as the director of network infrastructure for a business that provides other companies with employee recognition programs that measure, manage, and improve employee performance. He received good reviews and was named employee of the year in 2011. However, things changed starting in 2013, when the employee was going through a divorce, feared losing his relationship with his son, and suffered from severe depression.

Demoted. The employee began taking time off and his performance suffered. He claimed he told the chief information officer (CIO), to whom he directly reported, on more than two occasions in 2013 and in 2014 that he needed to work from home because of his severe depression, but the CIO said he wanted the employee at the office to manage staff and maintain the servers. The CIO denied this, but said he was aware of a change in the employee’s “health” and “mental days” off. By June 2, 2014, the employee’s title was changed to senior network engineer because the employer hired a new director of network infrastructure. Thereafter, the employee reported to the new director, to whom he turned over all his managerial responsibilities. The director kept a log of the employee’s absences and counseled him, but the absences persisted.

Crashing servers. Things came to a head in August when two of the employer’s servers crashed due to an outside bug while the employee was updating the servers from his home. The employer keeps electronically stored personnel and business data for clients, who access its proprietary software from the Internet. It was essential that the data be kept secure. Typically, if a crash happens, it can be resolved within hours if encryption keys and backup files are available. This time, however, another IT worker who was in charge of monitoring them allegedly lost them. An older backup file was eventually found and the data restored two days later. Though the employee no longer had managerial duties over other IT workers, he was blamed for the problem and fired.

Substantially limited due to disability. Denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment against the employee’s subsequent disability discrimination claims, the court analyzed the ADA and Massachusetts law claims together. Although the employer claimed he failed to produce evidence that his depression substantially limited a major life activity, the court found triable issues of fact. Not only did the employee offer a diagnoses from his doctor, he offered a sworn affidavit that his condition was worsened by his divorce and his doctor had noted that he was having suicidal thoughts. He was also missing work and the CIO noticed a change in his health.

Performing essential functions from home. Also rejected was the employer’s argument that the employee, though knowledgeable about servers, could not perform his essential functions due to his absences. The employee testified that he performed his duties while telecommuting from home for many years before the new director was hired. The court also found it significant that after the new director was hired in June 2014, the employee no longer had to supervise others, so a jury could find that his presence at the office became a marginal requirement. Also, working from home could be found to be a reasonable accommodation because the employee’s responsibilities concerned only technology issues that could be addressed from his computer.

Request for reasonable accommodation. Although it was a closer question, the court also found a triable issue on whether the employee requested an accommodation. His supervisor admitted in deposition that the employee told him that the employee’s divorce was the worst personal crisis of his life and he needed to work from home because of his severe depression. Furthermore, it appeared to the court that telecommuting was feasible under the circumstances because, as an experienced computer engineer, the employee could perform his tasks without supervision and he had sufficiently demonstrated he could perform his tasks at home, particularly since the employer took away all of his managerial responsibilities.

Poor performance resulted from disability. The employee also made a prima facie showing that his termination resulted, at least in part, because of his disability. The CIO stated in deposition that one of the reasons he was fired was because he was not in the office consistently. But the evidence suggested that this resulted from his disability, for which he sought the reasonable accommodation of working from home. That was enough for a prima facie case.

Pretext. Finally, though the employer asserted that it had a reasonable and good-faith belief that the employee’s performance was deficient, there was sufficient evidence of pretext to go to trial. For one thing, it blamed the employee for the servers crashing in August 2014 because he maintained the security of the servers. However, viewing the facts in his favor, the crash would not have occurred had the CIO heeded a warning that there were holes in the security. Moreover, had the keys been in the proper file, the system would have been backed up and running in hours and, as aptly pointed out by the employee, he was no longer responsible for supervising the other IT staff, including the individual who was responsible for the backup files and encryption keys and lost them. The court also noted that the servers were restored through the employee’s efforts.

The employer’s other reasons for the termination also had holes. For example, it asserted that he had not completed all of his 2013 objectives but the CIO admitted that some of them were not finished because he had the employee prioritize other tasks. As for his absences, there was a question whether he asked to work from home due to his disability and whether that was a reasonable accommodation. Based on all of the foregoing, summary judgment was denied.