Massachusetts Court Addresses Accommodating Employees with Depression Under ADA

 

Lev Craig

In Moebius v. TharpeRobbins Co., Matthew Moebius brought wrongful termination and disability discrimination claims against his former employer, TharpeRobbins, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Massachusetts state law, alleging that TharpeRobbins had discriminated against him because of his severe depression. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently denied TharpeRobbins’ motion for summary judgment. In its November 1, 2016 order, the court found that triable questions remained as to whether Moebius’s depression substantially limited a major life activity, whether TharpeRobbins had failed to provide Moebius with a reasonable accommodation, whether Moebius had been terminated because of his disability, and whether TharpeRobbins’ proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for Moebius’s termination were pretextual.

For over seven years, Moebius worked as a senior network engineer for TharpeRobbins, which develops and provides software programs designed to measure and reward employee performance. In late 2013, Moebius began experiencing symptoms of severe depression related to his recent divorce. Moebius alleges that, around this time, he began using more paid time off due to his depression and asked on two occasions if he could work from home as an accommodation. However, Moebius’s supervisor prohibited him from doing so and required him to be physically present in the office to manage other employees and maintain servers. Moebius’s attendance began to grow worse, and in September 2014, he was terminated, purportedly for unsatisfactory performance.

Developing an analytical framework for depression and other mental illnesses under the ADA’s “mental impairment” provision has presented unique challenges for courts. For instance, the frequency and duration of symptoms can vary widely among individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder—meaning that an employee with major depressive disorder might experience severely debilitating symptoms during a depressive episode, but exhibit virtually no symptoms whatsoever at other times. This variability of symptoms complicates the determination of whether the employee’s depression “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” the ADA’s metric for a qualifying disability.

Moebius submitted a sworn affidavit from his physician, who stated that Moebius was diagnosed with depression and had experienced suicidal ideation during his employment at TharpeRobbins. Considering this diagnosis in combination with Moebius’s pattern of depression-related absences from work, the court found that Moebius had “made a sufficient showing that he did in fact have a disability that significantly impaired his ability to perform his job” for purposes of summary judgment.

The court also determined that Moebius had “offered sufficient evidence … that working from home was a reasonable accommodation” for his depression, considering that “a reasonable juror could find that … being present in the office at all times was a marginal requirement and not an essential function of [Moebius’s] job.”

As recently as 15 years ago, the idea that an employee’s regular presence in the workplace did not constitute an “essential” element of their job might have been unthinkable to many employers. However, “telework” has become an increasingly viable option for accommodating employees with disabilities, thanks to the rising availability of technology—like video chat and instant messaging—that enables employees to communicate effectively with coworkers, even when not in the same physical location. The EEOC has released guidance for employers on implementing telework as a reasonable accommodation, stating that “[c]hanging the location where work is performed may fall under the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement of modifying workplace policies,” as long as “some or all of [the employee’s essential job] duties can be performed at home.”

Here, the court found that, as Moebius was “an experienced computer engineer” without managerial responsibilities “who was able to accomplish tasks with or without supervision,” he had sufficiently demonstrated that “the essential functions of his job could have been completed at home almost as easily as they could have been completed in the office.”

Disabled employees have the right to enjoy a workplace free of discrimination. If your employer has discriminated against you because of your disability, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.