Federal Court Rules That Online Happy Hours Are Not Good
Updated: Mar 2
BREAKING NEWS: A federal court in the District of Columbia recently issued an opinion granting an employer's motion for summary judgment officially holding what so many of us have come to learn over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic:
"Cracking open a cold [beer] on Skype just isn't the same."
In other, arguably less important news, the court also highlighted how detailed job descriptions and good documentation can help support an employer's determination that an employee's proposed reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not acceptable.
Background: The plaintiff in the case was a longtime (28 years) employee for Molson Coors (alcohol brewer/distributor) as a national account executive based in Washington, DC. His job required him to handle the sales plans for all Buffalo Wild Wings locations east of the MIssissippi River and to enhance the relationship between Buffalo Wild Wings locations and Molson Coors.
The plaintiff's job description provided that he would be required to travel in-person 50-60% of the time and that part of the job was to "ensure that products and programs are sold to and executed in chain retailers," which the company interpreted as requiring the employee to "recreate the full experience of in-person customer interactions."
Very sadly, the plaintiff started having heart issues and ultimately had to have a heart transplant. After some time off for the operation and to recover, he told his employer that he wanted to return to work, but that his doctors had placed restrictions on him such as no travel by plane and that he had to stay within a three-hour radius of Washington, DC.
Molson Coors evaluated the plaintiff's requests for accommodation under the ADA, and after an interactive process ultimately decided that the job required significant in-person travel that the plaintiff was unable to do, and terminated his employment. The employee sued, alleging that the company discriminated against him because of a disability and that he was improperly denied a reasonable accommodation.
The Court's Decision: The court found that the employer properly engaged in the ADA interactive process and was justified in concluding that the employee could not travel as the job required. It did not find merit in the employee's argument that he could fulfill his role through phone and video calls, noting that there was evidence that the role was to be customer-facing and required working directly on site. In addition, the role required the employee to simulate the experience between Buffalo Wild Wings employee and retail customers, which could not be done remotely according to the court, given the limitations on drinking beer over Skype.
My Takeaway: The employer did a lot of things right here including having a well-crafted job description and being upfront about the reason for termination from the outset. In fact, the court noted that the employer's story stayed the same throughout, and that it followed its own policies in evaluating the ADA request, both which gave credibility to the employer's position. There was plenty of documentation of everything that happened that the employer presented to the court, which really helped the court see that the employer was within its rights to terminate the employment.
This was a long-term employee, one that did a lot of good for the company over the course of his tenure. What happened to him was sad, and other companies may have come to different conclusions. But, Molson Coors had the legal right to take the position it did, and also was transparent and upfront about the process, which is how all companies should act in my opinion.