Gabriel Peeples v. Clinical Support Options, Inc.
Case No. 3:20-cv-30144-KAR, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 18001
U.S. Federal Court District of Massachusetts,
September 16, 2020
Keywords: Temporary Restraining Order, Preliminary Injunction, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), coronavirus, COV-19, telework, asthma, reasonable accommodation, individual assessment, interactive process
An employee was given an accommodation that allowed him to work from home due to his asthma and the impact of the COVID-pandemic. The employee successfully performed the essential functions of their job while teleworking.
The employer told the employee that he must return to the office to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, or he would be fired.
The employee went to federal court to stop the employer from firing him. The court issued the order for 60 days.
The employee, Plaintiff Gabriel Peeples, was an assistant manager at Clinical Support Options, Inc. (“CSO”), a behavioral and mental health provider in Greenfield, Massachusetts. In March 2020, the State of Massachusetts declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mr. Peeples and other employees began working from home.
In May 2020, CSO called all managers to return to the office. Mr. Peebles asked for accommodation that would allow him to continue working from home. His asthma put him at higher risk of getting the COVID-19 virus. CSO denied his request for an accommodation. According to Mr. Peeples, CSO did not conduct an individualized assessment of his situation. Mr. Peeples chose to use all his leave time to avoid returning to the office.
In July 2020, Mr. Peeples had to return to the office after using all of his leave time. CSO provided an air purifier and four KN95 masks. However, Mr. Peeples said he had trouble doing his job. It was hard to work with others while wearing a mask. He was not able to eat safely while in the building. It was also a challenge to stay away from other employees who did not wear masks.
A few weeks later, Mr. Peeples’ supervisor gave him letters that said Mr. Peeples was a valued employee and he could do all the essential job duties of his job from home. Mr. Peebles asked again to work from home and his request was denied by CSO.
Mr. Peeples sued CSO claiming disability discrimination, a failure to provide reasonable accommodation, and that CSO was a hostile work environment in violation of the ADA and Massachusetts law.
Reasonable accommodations are required under the ADA unless an employer can demonstrate such an accommodation would be an undue hardship. An undue hardship means that the accommodation would be too difficult or too expensive to provide. An employer's size, financial resources, and the needs of the business must be considered when deciding if an accommodation is an undue hardship.
To prevent an employer from firing an employee, a plaintiff (employee) must show that:
In this case, many facts were favorable to Mr. Peeples. He had notes from his doctor recommending that he work at home (telework) due to his asthma. His supervisor said Mr. Peeples could perform his essential job duties from home and was a valued employee. He showed his asthma put him at greater risk of serious injury due to COVID-19. Mr. Peeples also showed that allowing him to telework was not an undue hardship on CSO. Other CSO employees were allowed to work remotely, and he had been approved to work from home in the past.
CSO said that providing the accommodations of face masks, hand sanitizer, wipes, an air purifier, and a separate, private workspace were enough. However, the court described these steps as workplace safety. The court went on to say that broad rules (i.e., all managers are expected to return to work) without an interactive process were not enough to meet its duty to provide reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Individualized accommodations to address someone’s specific disability are needed.
Quoting relevant case law indicating Mr. Peeples was likely to win on the merits, the judge reported CSO had “at least some responsibility in determining the necessary accommodation.” Once Mr. Peeples’ request for telework appeared reasonable on its face due to his impairment, CSO needed to show undue hardship to deny his request. Because Mr. Peeples’ direct supervisor stated he could perform all essential duties remotely, and others were allowed to work remotely, the judge determined it was unlikely CSO could show allowing Mr. Peeples to telework created undue hardship for CSO.
The judge ordered CSO to do the following for 60 days.
Employees may be able to temporarily prevent their employers from firing them under the ADA if they show they can perform essential jobs duties with a reasonable accommodation.