Sixth Circuit Holds “Reasonable Accommodation” Under ADA Does Not Include Telecommuting

Posted on: Thursday, May 14th, 2015

In April, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued its eagerly-awaited decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. 2015), holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not provide a wholesale allowance to disabled employees of the job, or job schedule, of their choosing. The Court ruled, en banc, in favor of Ford Motor Company and rejected the EEOC’s claim that Ford violated the ADA by not allowing a disabled employee to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation.

Jane Harris, a Ford Motor Company employee with irritable bowel syndrome, sought a job schedule of her choosing: to work from home on an as-needed basis, up to four days per week. Ford denied her request, deeming regular and predictable on-site attendance essential to Harris’s highly interactive job. Harris served as a resale buyer, a position that meets with suppliers at their sites and with Ford employees at Ford’s site. In Ford’s judgment, “a resale buyer’s regular and predictable attendance in the workplace” is “essential to being a fully functioning member of the resale team.” To Ford, the request was unreasonable.

In addition to Harris’s accommodation request to work from home on an as-needed basis, her job performance was, on the whole, subpar. For instance, in 2009, she was absent more than she was present at work and, when she was at work, she arrived late and left early. The record reflected that Harris had “chronic attendance issues” and she ranked in the bottom 25% of her peer group during her final years at Ford. By her last year (2009), she was “not performing the basic functions of her position.”

After several meetings with Harris, Ford advised her that it could not accommodate her telecommuting request because it would prevent her from performing the essential functions of her job. It offered alternative accommodations, which Harris rejected. Given her poor performance, Ford terminated Harris in 2009. Harris then filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC. In 2011, the EEOC filed suit against Ford on Harris’s behalf which was dismissed at the summary judgment stage. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision in favor of Ford.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the majority of the Sixth Circuit’s panel concluded that “regular and predictable on-site attendance [was] an essential function (and a prerequisite to perform other essential functions) of Harris’s resale-buyer job.” Importantly, the Court went further and wrote, “in most jobs, especially those involving teamwork and a high level of interaction, the employer will require regular and predictable on-site attendance from all employees.” Moreover, “most jobs would be fundamentally altered if regular and predictable on-site attendance is removed.” Numerous federal appellate courts have rejected telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA concluding at on-site attendance is indeed essential.

While the majority opinion did not rule out telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation in all cases, it concluded under the facts of this case – where the essential functions of the job include regular, onsite attendance – a telecommuting request is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. A copy of the court’s opinion can be found here.

 

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