An employee is entitled to long-term disability benefits when she’s afflicted with “sick building syndrome” and can’t work in the large office building required by her job, according to a recent federal appeals court ruling. The National Safety Council defines sick building syndrome as occurring when occupants of a building complain of health problems seemingly linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified. Symptoms include headaches; eye, nose, and throat irritation; a dry cough; dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea; difficulty in concentrating; as well as fatigue and sensitivity to odors. Those who suffer from this syndrome often feel relief soon after leaving the building.
In the case before the federal court, a partner at a large law firm developed severe headaches, fatigue, and respiratory problems that improved when she left the high-rise office building where she worked. She tried working from home, but her employer told her that doing so on a permanent basis didn’t mesh with the nature of her work. The attorney then sought long-term disability benefits from the law firm. The firm’s Workers Comp carrier denied her claim, arguing she could work from home or find work at a smaller firm, which would likely be located in a smaller building, as she had earlier in her legal career.
However, a federal appeals court disagreed, holding that large employers must be located in spaces large enough to accommodate all their employees. Even if the plaintiff could find equivalent employment, it would probably be with an employer located in a large office building environment.
According to the court, the insurance carrier ignored evidence that the woman could not work from home or at a smaller firm. Instead, insisting that she should work from home. The court also said that because of the woman’s area of expertise — commercial real estate law — working at a smaller law firm wasn’t a viable alternative. To read the case, click here.
Ray v. UNUM Life Insurance Co., 10th Cir. No. 05-1284