By: Jessica Jackler
In 2018, the EEOC filed suit against Charter Communications, LLC in a Wisconsin federal court alleging disability discrimination for failing to accommodate an employee. The employee worked at a call center for the defendant-employer. Cataracts in both eyes made his vision blurry and made seeing in the dark difficult, thus making nighttime driving unsafe. Public transit was not an option on the employee’s schedule. The employee asked for an earlier work schedule to reduce his nighttime driving for his long drive home from work. The employer granted his first request for a thirty-day change but denied his request to extend the schedule.
The district court granted summary judgment to the employer holding that the employer had no obligation to accommodate the employee’s commute because his disability did not affect his ability to perform any essential function of his job once he arrived at the workplace. EEOC v. Charter Commc’ns LLC, No. 18-cv-1333-bhl, 2021 WL 5988637 (E.D. Wis. Dec. 17, 2021).
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling in favor of the employer. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Charter Communications, LLC, No. 22-1231 (7th Cir. 2023). The main question on appeal was whether the employee was entitled to a modified work schedule as an accommodation to make his commute safer. The court concluded that the answer is “maybe” and that the case should not have been resolved on summary judgment.
The appellate court found that there is no bright-line rule as to when an employee’s disability interferes with essential job attendance or whether particular accommodations are reasonable. However, if a qualified individual’s disability substantially interferes with the employee’s ability to commute to work and attendance at work is an essential function, an employer may sometimes be required to provide a commute-related accommodation when reasonable under the circumstances. It further found that the requested accommodation, a second thirty-day change to the employee’s work schedule, was not, at least as a matter of law, unreasonable given the employee’s circumstances and his job with this particular employer. His vision impairment interfered with commuting to work safely, and attendance was an essential function of his job. There was also a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the employee was actually disabled. The court also found summary judgment to be improper because the employer did not demonstrate that the accommodation would have imposed an undue hardship.
The court noted, however, that whether an employee with a disability can show that the employee’s commuting situation is the unusual exception requiring accommodation from an employer will depend on many facts, including the benefits of the accommodation, alternatives to the accommodation, the cost to the employer, and consequences for others.