Employer Update: First Published Court Decision Concerning Reasonable Accommodation Request Related to COVID-19

The United States District Court (D. Mass.), appears to have published the first decision concerning a COVID-related reasonable accommodation request under Federal and Massachusetts law. In the case, Gabriel Peeples v. Clinical Support Options, Inc. (Case No. 3:20-cv-30144-KAR), the Plaintiff, who suffered from “moderate asthma,” alleged that the Defendant’s refusal to permit a coronavirus-related request for reasonable accommodation violated, among other laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and M.G.L. c. 151B, § 16(4). The Court  granted the Plaintiff’s request for preliminary injunctive relief based on three key elements of the case that serve as guidance for employers when evaluating requests for reasonable accommodations in the context of COVID-19:

  1. The COVID-related disability must fall within the scope of ADA’s definition:
    • “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2)
    • Although coronavirus, itself, has not been found to be a “disability,” this case is evidence that conditions, such as asthma, that place employees at higher risk of contracting coronavirus may be considered a “disability” for ADA and 151B purposes. In other words, the higher risk alone may be sufficient to qualify as a “disability” in the context of coronavirus.
  1. Accommodations may be required where employees establish that they are able to perform the essential functions of their job with such accommodations.
    • Blanket statements that all employees who perform similar essential functions must work under the same conditions may not be enforceable.
    • Essential function analysis should be performed on an individual basis considering the totality of an individual’s circumstances.
  1. Employers must fulfill their duties to engage in an interactive process in response to a request for reasonable accommodation.
    • An interactive process must be individualized for a particular employee’s request to determine whether an accommodation is reasonable.
    • Decisions made during the interactive process must be based upon relevant facts in a given situation; not based upon blanket presumptions.

In its decision, the Court found that a reasonable accommodation should be permitted if an employee has demonstrated that the requested accommodation is reasonable, and the employer has not shown (through the interactive process) facts to prove that the accommodation is harmful to the business’ needs. While the Peeples case was decided at the preliminary injunction stage and is not binding precedent, it serves as a critical reminder that an employer’s obligations pursuant to the ADA and 151B have not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, employers will likely need to be more cognizant of individual employee needs than ever before.

Employer responses to and obligations concerning reasonable accommodation requests during the COVID-19 pandemic remain fluid. We will continue to monitor the activity and decisions in similar cases and provide relevant employer updates. If you need additional interpretation or guidance related this particular decision, if you are looking for more information about compliance with the state and federal guidance on Coronavirus (COVID-19), please contact Greg Vanden-Eykel at 617.654.8200.

Barton Gilman’s employment law team provides comprehensive legal guidance to a wide variety of employers on all aspects of the employment cycle—from hiring through separation—including personnel policies and handbooks, non-compete agreements, and representation before state and federal courts and agencies. To learn more, please visit www.bglaw.com/services/labor-employment/.