Excerpted from a Troutman Pepper Blog by Christopher Moran, Angelo Stio, III and Brian Ellixson

As more employers are requiring their employees to return to the workplace, a recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Oross v. Kutztown University, suggests that employers should reconsider any policy that would categorically deny employee requests for remote work.

Though employers may attempt to justify such policies on the bases that in-person employee attendance is an essential function of the position, the Kutztown University decision demonstrates that at least one court would disagree with such a bright line approach.

In Kutztown University, a professor who had undergone a heart transplant sued the university after it denied his request to teach and hold office hours remotely during the Fall 2021 semester. The professor’s transplant required him to take immunosuppressive medications to reduce his risk of organ rejection, rendering him particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. In denying the request, the university relied on its determination that the ability to teach in-person was an essential function of the position.

Although the university said it had performed an individualized assessment before concluding the professor’s request would create an undue hardship on the university, the court found otherwise. In reaching this conclusion, the court noted the university denied all other requests by its faculty members for remote teaching accommodations.

The professor claimed the university’s denial of his request for remote work constituted intentional disability discrimination and interference with his rights under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, an analog of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and analyzed under the same standards as the ADA.

In response, the university argued that: (1) the professor was not a “qualified individual” because he was only willing to teach remotely and teaching in-person was an essential function of the role; and (2) even if the professor was a qualified individual, granting his request would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the university and thereby impose an undue burden.

The court found the university’s arguments unavailing and granted the professor’s motion for summary judgment. The court’s key factual findings are outlined below:

The Kutztown University decision sets forth some helpful principles for employers to follow to ensure that their good faith desire to have employees return to the workplace does not conflict with employee rights that may exist under federal law, including the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.

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