Legal Update: MCAD Disability Decision Based on Failure to Allow Hybrid-Remote Work Schedule

In MCAD v. Organogenesis, Inc., 17-BEM-01945 (2023), the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) awarded damages to a former employee who requested to work from home as a disability accomodation.  In the lawsuit, the employee alleged tht she had physical pain due to a disability which was exacerbated by her long commute.  She received a doctor’s note indicating that a hybrid work schedule was warranted.  The employer denied the request, instead offering the employee stretch breaks and a sit-stand desk. 

The MCAD found that the employee had a disability as defined by M.G.L c. 151b § 1(17) and could have performed essential functions of the job with accommodations. They reasoned that her physical presence was not an essential position because she interfaced with suppliers and internal departments primarily by phone, computer, or email rather than in person contact. Additionally, responding to emergency or unforeseen situations was not an essential function as during entire time there, her department did not involve products under her responsibility and the company never ran out of stock. Furthermore, the MCAD reasoned that even though teamwork is essential, it could be done over the phone and computer, which she had done when previously working from home. Though salesforce training was an essential function it could also be done online because it was planned in advance and could be accommodated around 3 days in office schedule. Because the employer “failed to explore permitting the employee to work 1 or more days a week” from home, and instead, offer a severance package, he failed to engage in an interactive dialogue. Similarly, the MCAD found HR failed to engage in an interactive dialogue as for over 2 months they could not provide employee with a response to inquire about how a hybrid arrangement would reduce her pain. Absent these kinds of questions, their dialogue was not interactive, and their attempts were not in good faith.  Finally, the MCAD found that the alternative suggestions (room to stretch, stand-up desk etc.) were not sufficient because it didn’t address or shorten Ms. Gurnett’s commute.

Finally, the MCAD also ruled that being offered a severance package to avoid providing accommodations is not sufficient evidence for constructive discharge. Furthermore, the MCAD ruled that the company did not meet its burden of proof for demonstrating a hybrid schedule accommodation would create undue hardship because the employee previously worked from home over 10 times without any complaints or repercussions, team meetings could be virtual or held on the days she was in the office, her role was primarily conducted via telecommunications, and her department did not experience emergency situations requiring her physical presence.

Post by Janelle Williams, Summer Law Clerk, UConn Law, Class of 2024