Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination Holds Employer Unlawfully Denied an Employee’s Reasonable Accommodation to Work Remotely Two Days a Week and Awarded $75,000 in Emotional Distress Damages

In June, a Hearing Officer for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) issued a decision in Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, et al. v. Organogenesis, Inc (No. 17-BEM-01945), holding that an employer unlawfully discriminated against an employee when it refused to grant the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation to work remotely two days a week.

A company employee was experiencing chronic pain in her neck, shoulders, back, hips and feet, which was exacerbated by her daily 1-2 hour commute. Due to the severity of her pain, the employee approached her supervisor about the possibility of working remotely. The employee’s supervisor responded with a firm “no” and raised the notion of a severance package. Upon receiving a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, the employee provided her supervisor with a physician’s note and repeated her request to work remotely two days a week. The supervisor informed the human resources department about the employee’s accommodation request and indicated that he opposed the accommodation. When the company’s human resources representative met with the employee, the representative was terse and informed the employee that her accommodation request was denied. The representative did offer the employee a change to her schedule, a stand-up desk, and a conference room in which to stretch. Several months following this exchange, the employee resigned from her position and filed a complaint with MCAD alleging disability discrimination, including failure to provide a reasonable accommodation and constructive discharge.

The Hearing Officer concluded that the company’s refusal to grant the employee a two day per week remote work schedule constituted a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to her disability in violation of M.G.L. c. 151B, § 4(16). In particular, the hearing officer explained that while employers are not required to provide the best accommodation available, or the accommodation specifically requested by the employee, employers do have an obligation to provide an accommodation that is effective for its purpose. A place to stretch and a stand-up desk did not address the root, exacerbating cause of the employee’s pain. Further, the Hearing Officer concluded that a partial remote work schedule would have been a reasonable accommodation and would not constitute an undue hardship. Indeed, the record demonstrated that the employee had previously worked from home 10-15 times; that the supervisor believed that the employee could have worked remotely on a one day a week basis, absent supply issues; and that much of the employee’s job required her to work independently using electronic databases, email and telephone.

While no constructive discharge was found in this case, the Hearing Officer concluded that both the employee’s supervisor and the company’s human resources department failed to engage in an interactive dialogue. The Hearing Officer further held that the breakdown in the interactive process and the failure to accommodate the employee’s disability resulted in severe, long-lasting distress and granted the employee $75,000 in emotional distress damages.

The Organogenesis, Inc decision is an important reminder that once a qualified individual with a disability requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer must engage in good faith in an interactive dialogue with the employee to identify reasonable accommodations.

If you have questions on the content of this update, or reasonable accommodations in general, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.