Culture   //   March 19, 2024

These lawsuits will define future RTO and WFH rights

Working from home, and now return to office mandates, have caused an avalanche of lawsuits across the country. Some are due to accommodation requirements others around an employer’s alleged failure to reimburse for cell phone and internet bills and employers are finding themselves involved in litigation. 

WorkLife spoke with employment lawyers to dive into four cases that have set standards for following litigation around these matters. Here’s what they had to say:

EEOC v. ISS Facility Services, Inc

ISS Facility Services, Inc, a facility management company, agreed to pay $47,500 to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The company refused to allow a disabled employee at high risk for COVID-19 work part-time from home, despite previously allowing a rotating schedule during the pandemic. The company’s denial of the employee’s request for accommodation, followed by her termination, was deemed a violation of the ADA. The settlement also required the company to permit EEOC monitoring of future accommodation requests. 

“My interpretation is that this is a signal that the EEOC, whatever they saw in their investigation, thought this company is tone deaf to ADA requirements,” said Linda Ashar, an employment attorney and associate professor at the Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University System.

The suit was settled in December 2022, but has lasting impacts. Even today, four years after the pandemic, employers are facing litigation in relation to ADA compliance. It emphasizes the need for employers to be flexible and consistent in accommodating employees, especially in changing work environments.

“What I’m seeing the most of now is disability-related cases,” said Ashar. “That’s where it’s going because a lot of the people who are seeking to work at home are people that have some need to stay out of the office due to some condition they have. And for whatever reason, the employer resists that.”

Belval v. Electric Boat Corporation

In another ADA-related case, Zacchery Belval, a resident of Enfield, Conn., claimed discrimination for Electric Boat Corporation’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations.

Belval, who has multiple health issues, including a heart defect and severe anxiety, argued he was at increased risk for COVID-19. He had worked from home during the pandemic but faced challenges when the company encouraged a return to the office. The physical demands of returning and poor office conditions led him to seek continued remote work, which the company partially granted. However, Belval deemed this accommodation insufficient. 

“It’s saying ‘the way we want to structure our company is more important than your condition,’” said Ashar. When he did not return to work under these conditions, Electric Boat acknowledged that as his resignation. 

Employers are struggling to handle the anxiety that pushing strict RTO mandates is causing for some employees, stressed Mark Kluger, partner in the New Jersey employment law firm Kluger Healey.

“I’ve been seeing more and more questions around mental health issues that people raise as a reason for needing remote work and reasonable accommodation,” said Kluger. “There are a lot more ADA claims based on mental health and it becomes a really difficult thing for an employer to accommodate every person who says, ‘being around the office stresses me out so I need to work remotely.’ It almost becomes like a free-for-all all for employers to try and sort out if it’s a legitimate need to work from home or just common stress.”

Alice Jump, partner at Reavis Page Jump LLP, is dealing with the same picture. “The biggest issue we see is people who don’t want to return to work for some sort of disability claim, either physical or mental illness,” said Jump. “The remote work environment has been very beneficial to people with disabilities in terms of getting employment where they might not otherwise have been able to. So it’s been a boon. Now that there is a return to work impetus, there are issues of whether one has to return to work.“

Elmarie Bodes v. AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals Lp

The huge pharmaceutical company was sued by a former senior director who claims the drugmaker refused to pay her nearly $130,000 in promised bonuses and stock options because she worked from home full-time. 

Elmarie Bodes said in the lawsuit filed in South Carolina state court in September 2023 that she was owed a $124,000 performance bonus and $65,000 in stock options. 

“I think the takeaway is that everybody is still trying to figure it out. Cases are going both ways.”
Alice Jump, partner at Reavis Page Jump LLP.

Instead, AstraZeneca cut her payout in half and refused to grant any stock options because she did not come into the office at least three days per week, according to the lawsuit. It claims AstraZeneca gave no prior notice that it would condition bonuses on whether employees reported to the office. 

The case has not yet been settled.

“It’s an interesting breach of contract claim,” said Jump. “I think the takeaway is that everybody is still trying to figure it out. Cases are going both ways.”

Class actions against Wells Fargo, Amazon, Visa, Oracle, Bank of America and more

Remote and hybrid work has meant that people are using their own resources to get the job done. That means everything like the internet, home office equipment, office supplies, cell usage, and more. 

It’s led to employees asking their employers to reimburse them for these expenses, sometimes going as far as to file lawsuits when companies refuse. Except, they’re not going for small sums of money. They’ve calculated the extra electricity required, the space they’re using on their own, and so on. For someone who has worked remotely since March 2020, their employer might technically owe them thousands of dollars.

Federal law doesn’t require employers to reimburse employees for work expenses, but the Fair Labor Standards Act does require reimbursement if it causes an employee’s earnings to fall below the federal minimum wage. Because of that, these cases only hold ground in states that do legally require employers to reimburse employees for business expenses, which include California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.

“The issue is how far does that go? What if an employee says their employer should be paying part of their mortgage?
Mark Kluger, partner in the New Jersey employment law firm Kluger Healey.

“The issue is how far does that go?,” said Kluger. “What if an employee says their employer should be paying part of their mortgage? Instead of taking up space in the office you’re paying rent for, I’m using my own space, but there’s a cost to that. The issues in these cases are defining the obligations employers have.”

Last March, a California federal judge refused an employee to pursue claims on behalf of nearly 7,000 other workers that the online retailer did not cover home office expenses. The judge said the plaintiff failed to identify a company-wide policy of not reimbursing employees for those costs, noting that at least 600 workers were reimbursed.

Amazon isn’t the only company that was under fire. In 2021, a proposed class action lawsuit claimed that Wells Fargo Bank failed to reimburse business expenses incurred by customer service employees working from home. Additionally, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Visa, Oracle and Bank of America have been sued by employees for unpaid remote work expenses. 

“There are a lot of employers voluntarily paying those expenses to some extent,” said Kluger. “What I tell my clients is that they need a written, clearly defined policy to what extent employees will be reimbursed so that this doesn’t become an issue.”