February 6th, 2019 by Lindsey A. White at Shawe Rosenthal
Leaving Work Early Due to Fear of Rush-Hour Traffic Is Not a Reasonable Accommodation
An employee requested that she be permitted to leave work early every day due to her anxiety triggered by driving home in heavy traffic (those of us in major metropolitan areas would never survive!). When her demand was rejected and she ended up being terminated, Heather Trautman brought suit against her employer, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and related state laws, Trautman v. Time Warner Cable Texas, LLC.
While pregnant, Trautman had a panic attack while driving home in rush hour. Although her position required her to be in the office to interact with other members of her team, her supervisor agreed she could leave the office between 2 and 3 p.m. and work remotely for the rest of the day due to her phobia of rush-hour traffic.
Time Warner’s generosity continued after the birth of Trautman’s child in December 2013. Because she was having difficulty transitioning her baby to a bottle, Time Warner permitted her to work remotely for the entirety of 2014! (Note, transitioning a child from breast-feeding to bottle-feeding is not legally protected).
As often happens when a new supervisor takes control, in December 2014 Trautman’s new boss no longer permitted her to work remotely full-time. Not surprisingly, Trautman requested a modified schedule that would permit her to work from home in the afternoons due to her anxiety over driving in rush hour traffic. Time Warner denied this request as unrelated to an essential function of her job but offered to end Trautman’s workday at 4 p.m.
Instead of even attempting that schedule, or exploring public transit that would not require driving in rush hour, Trautman requested intermittent FMLA. She was granted some intermittent FMLA but was ultimately terminated for excessive absenteeism, which did not include her FMLA-approved leave.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Time Warner, finding that Trautman was indeed terminated for excessive absenteeism rather than disability discrimination or FMLA retaliation, and that Time Warner did not deny Trautman a reasonable accommodation.
What I find striking about this case—aside from the audacity of the Plaintiff to file suit after Time Warner had provided her with telework and other modifications to which she was not legally entitled—was that the Court credited Time Warner for good behavior. In determining that Time Warner’s reason for termination was not “pretext” for discrimination, the Court noted that Time Warner had a history of granting Trautman’s accommodation and FMLA requests back to 2013 “even when it was not required to do so by law.” The Court also credited Time Warner for its flexibility in offering a 4 p.m. departure and dinged Trautman for responding to a schedule modification by asking for an 11 a.m. departure and refusing to consider alternatives to driving, noting that her behavior was “not the stuff of flexible, interactive discussions” as required by the ADA. Time Warner’s actions of going above and beyond to assist Trautman ultimately helped secure a victory when she sued the company.
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