Employer Engaged in Unlawful Discrimination by Refusing to Excuse an Employee From Overtime

On September 21, 2023, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision in Tufts Medical Center v. Dalexis, No. 22-P-15, which affirmed a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) decision holding that Tufts Medical Center (“Tufts”) engaged in unlawful discrimination on the basis of disability by refusing to excuse an inpatient nurse from overtime.

Dalexis worked as a “day/rotator” inpatient nurse on the day-evening shift at Tufts. Dalexis was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and interstitial lung disease. After exhausting her protected leave, Tufts informed Dalexis that her nursing position would be filled and she would need to apply for open positions when she was ready to return. When Dalexis was cleared to return to work, she was not immediately selected to interview for open positions. When she was offered a vacant night-shift position, Dalexis declined the offer, explaining that night shifts exacerbated her medical condition. Subsequently, Dalexis’ doctor provided Tufts with a note explaining that Dalexis could not work overtime or night shifts. Based on that information, Tufts concluded that Dalexis was ineligible for an inpatient nurse position because the ability to work overtime was an essential function of the job.

Dalexis filed a complaint with MCAD alleging that Tufts discriminated against her on the basis of her disability. A Hearing Officer concluded that Tufts should have accommodated Dalexis by excusing her from overtime and night-shift work. In so holding, the Hearing Officer found that working overtime was not an essential function of Dalexis’ position. The Hearing Officer further held that Tufts failed to participate in an effective interactive process with her, resulting in her constructive discharge. The full Commission affirmed the Hearing Officer’s decision in its entirety and a judge of the Superior Court affirmed the Commission’s decision. Tufts then appealed.

On appeal, the Court explained that determining whether a particular job function is “essential” for purposes of G.L. c. 151B is intensely fact-based and requires individualized inquiry. Massachusetts courts have previously identified several nonexclusive factors to consider in determining whether a particular function is essential, including: (i) the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; (ii) written job descriptions as prepared before advertising the job; (iii) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (iv) the consequence of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function; (v) the terms of a collective bargaining agreement; (vi) the work experience of past incumbents in the job; and (iv) the current work experience of incumbents in similar positions. Considering the foregoing factors, the Appeals Court concluded overtime was not an essential function of the job of an inpatient nurse.

As a threshold matter, the applicable CBA did not mandate overtime. Moreover, while many nurses at Tufts worked overtime, some nurses performed as little as three hours of overtime during a full year, and more than five percent of Tufts nurses worked no overtime at all. Further, Dalexis herself had previously been granted an accommodation exempting her from overtime. Accordingly, the Appeals Court discerned no cause to disturb the judgment of the Superior Court affirming the MCAD Decision.

Importantly, the Court noted that overtime can be an essential function of a job. However, the fact that overtime has been found to be an essential function in certain settings does not compel that conclusion in all circumstances. The Tufts Medical Center decision is an important reminder that the determination of whether a particular function amounts to an “essential function” of a job is a fact specific inquiry and cases involving overtime work can pose a particular challenge in applying the applicable analytical framework.

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