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Yochim v. Carson

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 15, 2019

Elisa J. Yochim, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Benjamin S. Carson, Sr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued July 9, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. l:16-cv-4926 - Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge.

          Before Kanne, Hamilton, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

          Scudder, Circuit Judge.

         Elisa Yochim worked in the legal department of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for 26 years. Throughout her tenure, she took full advantage of HUD's flexible and progressive policy permitting employees to work from home several days per week. After undergoing hand surgery, Yochim requested time off and permission to work from home. HUD agreed and allowed her time to recover and to telework several days a week for many months as she received physical therapy. HUD later restructured its law department and this development had the effect of requiring employees like Yochim to spend more time in the office. In time this restructuring, combined with Yochim's performance deficiencies, led HUD to revoke her telework privileges and offer alternative accommodations. For her part, Yochim responded with this lawsuit, alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act for failure to accommodate her ongoing rehabilitation needs. The district court entered summary judgment for HUD, and we affirm. No rational jury could conclude that the Department failed to offer reasonable accommodations.

         I

         In reviewing the district court's award of summary judgment to HUD, we construe the facts in the light most favorable to Yochim as the nonmovant, resolving evidentiary conflicts and competing inferences in her favor. See Brown v. Milwaukee Bd. of Sch. Dirs., 855 F.3d 818, 820 (7th Cir. 2017).

         Yochim worked as a HUD attorney for 26 years, serving in the Chicago office for the last 15 years before her retirement in May 2015. During her tenure, the Department maintained a forward-leaning telework policy that allowed full-time employees to work from home up to three days a week at their manager's discretion.

         Beginning in October 2012, HUD's legal department underwent a functional reorganization. Before this change, the Department's attorneys tended to specialize in particular areas. With the reorganization, however, HUD wanted its attorneys to work more as generalists and to assist each other through cross-training and collaboration-a change in approach less suited to telework. Yochim's job description changed to include "training, orientation, [and] working groups" as well as "administrative responsibilities," including "space and file management," as areas of focus. Around this same time, Yochim applied for a supervisory position, but the Department passed her up and instead awarded the role to Lisa Danna-Brennan, who became Yochim's supervisor. This development was not one Yochim welcomed.

         In November 2012, Yochim had surgery to treat carpal tunnel syndrome in her right hand. The surgery brought with it a recovery and rehabilitation process, prompting Yochim to submit several requests to HUD to accommodate her needs. The HUD handbook outlines the Department's process for accommodating such requests. Employees can seek reasonable accommodations through their immediate supervisor or the Department's Reasonable Accommodation Branch. The supervisor and employee then engage in an interactive process to identify an accommodation, and the Reasonable Accommodation Branch facilitates this communication. The Branch determines an employee's eligibility for a reasonable accommodation, while the supervisor shoulders responsibility for deciding what accommodation is suitable.

         Yochim submitted her first accommodation request in December 2012, asking her supervisor, Danna-Brennan, to permit her to telework during the eight days in December on which she had not already scheduled leave and all of January. To support her request, Yochim submitted two work-status forms from her surgeon. In the first form, the doctor identified no work or functional limitations while adding that Yochim "may work from home until the end of January." The doctor's second form conveyed a work-related limitation, explaining that Yochim had "diminished right-hand strength and should not rely on gripping with that hand until February 1, 2013; specifically, riding public transportation that requires holding on with her right hand may be a safe[t]y concern."

         Danna-Brennan approved Yochim's request to work from home the remainder of December. As for Yochim's request to telework throughout January, Danna-Brennan offered a compressed schedule consisting of four ten-hour days-two in the office and two at home. Danna-Brennan also afforded Yochim the flexibility to "set her schedule to reflect her need to avoid rush hour" if she maintained a set daily schedule. Apparently unhappy that her compressed schedule still required her to come to the office two days a week, Yochim later complained to Danna-Brennan that she had to use sick leave to stay home these extra two days per week. At no point, however, did Yochim explain why HUD's accommodation would interfere with ongoing and medically necessary rehabilitation or physical therapy. Nor did Yochim suggest other accommodation options.

         In March 2013, Yochim submitted a second request to work full-time from home until June 30 to accommodate her ongoing recovery from surgery. She supported this request with a letter from her primary-care physician, Dr. Lexy Wistenberg, who reported that she continued to experience pain and swelling in her right hand. Dr. Wistenberg also advised that Yochim may need to avoid commuting during rush hour to avoid getting stuck standing in a train aisle and needing to grasp a handrail. Otherwise, however, Dr. Wistenberg cleared Yochim to work as she continued her physical therapy.

         In April 2013, while the second accommodation request was pending, Danna-Brennan placed Yochim on a sick-leave restriction. This restriction required Yochim to provide a doctor's note with the date and time of an appointment or any anticipated medical care and to schedule medical appointments at the beginning or end of the day to have the least impact on the workday. This new restriction resulted from Danna-Brennan's determination that Yochim had a history of excessive absences from work-an audit of Yochim's time revealed that she had taken ...


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