Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Opens Question as to Whether Telecommuting is a Reasonable Accommodation

 
Monday, April 28, 2014
 

The majority of a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided on April 22 that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had created issues sufficient for trial in its disability discrimination lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company. The EEOC had charged that Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by denying a former employee the opportunity to telework and by firing her after she filed an EEOC charge.

The EEOC sued Ford Motor in 2011, charging that the company's denial of Jane Harris's request to work from home up to four days a week as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome violated the ADA, and that Ford had then retaliated against her by firing her after she filed an EEOC charge. Ford's telecommuting policy authorized employees to work up to four days a week from a telecommuting site. Harris was a resale steel buyer whose job primarily required telephone and computer contact with coworkers and suppliers.

The district court granted summary judgment for Ford Motor, holding that attendance at the job site was an essential function of Harris's job, and that Harris's disability-related absences meant that she was not a "qualified" individual under the ADA. The lower court also ruled that Harris's telework request was not a reasonable accommodation for her job. The district court also said the EEOC could not prove Harris's termination was retaliatory because it was based on attendance and performance issues that pre-dated her charge filing.

The Sixth Circuit panel majority reversed the lower court on both counts. (EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. (6th Cir. No. 12-2484)). The majority noted that "the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context . . . and recognize that the 'workplace' is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties." The majority held that the "highly fact-specific" question was thus whether presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential, and that a jury should decide that issue. The panel majority also held that the EEOC had created a question for the jury about why Ford Motor terminated Harris, and whether it was in retaliation for filing a charge or because of genuine performance problems.

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