“Now, after COVID, employers will have a harder time refusing accommodation because they could look back during COVID to see what parts of the job required face-to-face attendance and how remote operations were feasible at the time of the pandemic,” said attorney Matthew Dietz . (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / ALM)
A lawsuit against State Farm alleging the insurer refused to accommodate an employee in 2016 is now moving forward and attracting the attention of lawyers across the country.
As seen on Law.com Radar, plaintiff Precious Ford filed a workplace discrimination complaint against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., which alleged violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ford’s attorney Victor Severin Roberts of Barrett & Farahany in Atlanta did not respond to requests for comment.
Ford alleged in her complaint that her supervisors had repeatedly declined her requests to work from home due to disabilities, but had made the accommodation available to other employees.
“[Ford] suffers from disabilities, from it [State Farm] had actual knowledge, ”said the complaint. “Special, [Ford] suffered from major depression, anxiety, stress and phobia. Additionally, [State Farm] ‘notices’ [Ford] as disabled. “
Rather than responding to Ford’s remote work requests, the alleged superiors of the complaint advised Ford to take advantage of her available medical vacation, granted her an extension of the company tenure and allowed her to work a shortened shift that included daily staffing.
According to the complaint, management denied applications and eventually terminated their employment after Ford continued to apply for home based accommodation and attempt to be relocated to a vacant position.
“[State Farm] fined [Ford] during this period from the beginning of August 2016 to November 2016 for applying for accommodation and using free time because of their disabilities, ”the complaint stated. “[State Farm] followed the hours [Ford] missed and threatened [Ford’s] Employment if it reaches the maximum number of hours of sick pay.
The State Farm, represented by Darren E. Nadel and Stephen E. Baumann II of Littler Mendelson in Denver, alleged no wrongdoing in a statement emailed.
“State Farm is aware of the lawsuit but has not yet had a chance to respond,” the statement said. “State Farm denies that it was guilty of guilty against Ms. Ford in her employment for the company and intends to defend herself vigorously against Ms. Ford’s claims.”
But in the complaint, Ford disagreed.
“Even though [State Farm] purports to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory ground for the negative measure, that ground is a pretext for discrimination on the basis of disability, ”the complaint reads. “[State Farm] treated other employees outside [Ford’s] Protection class different. ”
Pre-pandemic vs. post-pandemic
The lawsuit is pending in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Lawyer Matthew Dietz questions how the current prevalence of work-from-home adaptations could affect the litigation.
“I’m sure there weren’t any ‘huddles’ when people were isolated in their homes,” said Dietz, litigation director of the Disability Independence Group in Miami.
Dietz is unrelated to the case but has been involved in civil litigation relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act for 25 years. He said the litigation and its timing highlighted the future of teleworking as shelter after COVID-19 – a postponement he described as a “huge problem” in several practice areas.
“The most difficult thing in any case for a person with psychiatric disabilities is to prove that the employee needs to be accommodated and that she is not too disabled to be qualified for the job,” said Dietz. “Provided that she overcomes this barrier – the one [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] believes she did – all she needs to show is how the state farm worked during the pandemic. “
The comparison, said Dietz, would show which elements of Ford’s work were important and whether the employee could meet these essential requirements from home.
“Now, after COVID, employers will have a harder time refusing accommodation as they could look back during COVID to see what parts of the job required face-to-face attendance and how remote operations were feasible at the time of the pandemic,” Dietz said. “In many office jobs where the employee is not a direct service provider, presence is not an essential qualification of the position.”
Ford’s lawsuit, citing emotional stress, sought jury trial in hopes of reimbursement of damages for “mental and emotional suffering,” lost wages and benefits, as well as pre-trial interest, attorney’s fees and legal costs.