Telecommuting Could Be A Reasonable Accommodation

In 2011, Jane Harris, a resale buyer working with Ford Motor Company (“Ford”), filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging that the companies’ denial of her request to work from home (telework) for up to four days a week due to her Irritable Bowel Syndrome (“IBS”) violated the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”). She further alleged that Ford retaliated against her when they terminated her employment after filing her complaint. The district court granted summary judgment for Ford claiming that attendance at the job site was an essential function of Harris’s employment and that her absences due to her disability did not qualify under the ADA. The court further held that her request to telework was not a “reasonable” accommodation for her position because she could not perform all of her essential job functions outside of the office. The court took note of Ford’s complaints stating that when Harris was permitted to work remotely, she was unable to engage in team problem-solving, lacked access to suppliers, and missed deadlines.

On April 22nd of this year, the majority of a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the district courts decision to grant summary judgment to Ford. The issue discussed by the Sixth Circuit was whether a teleworking arrangement could be a reasonable accommodation for an employee suffering from a disability. The Sixth Circuit found the EEOC had sufficient factual issues to entitle Harris to a trial based on ADA discrimination and retaliation. The Sixth Circuit further discussed that a four-day a week teleworking schedule could be considered a “reasonable” accommodation under the ADA. The EEOC General Counsel David Lopez praised the Sixth Circuit and claimed the decision “reaffirms the employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations unless it can show it results in undue hardship.”

The Sixth Circuit panel majority concluded by stating that they were not rejecting the precedent that attendance is an essential function of most employment positions. They expressed that the purpose of their holding is to recognize “given the state of modern technology, it is no longer the case that jobs suitable for telecommuting are 'extraordinary' or 'unusual.” This case could provide valuable opportunities for disabled employees working in positions where teleworking could be a viable option.

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