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Telecommuting May Be Reasonable Accommodation

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June 17, 2014

Advances in technology have transformed many workplaces, allowing business to be conducted virtually anywhere, at any time.  However, with these greater conveniences come additional challenges, as employers attempt to navigate employment law issues surrounding use of technology.  A recent case involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) highlights the need for a carefully-drafted telecommuting policy, as working from home may be a “reasonable accommodation” for employees with disabilities.

An April 2014 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, No. 12-2484, 2014 WL 1584674 (6th Cir. Apr. 22, 2014) held that physical presence at the workplace may not be an essential function of many jobs, and that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation for employees whose jobs do not require direct customer/client interaction or manual labor.  This case revolved around the claims of Jane Harris, a buyer for Ford, who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  Ms. Harris was frequently absent from work and requested that she be allowed to work from home as an accommodation.  Because her job required frequent in-person meetings, Ford denied her request; instead, it offered her other options, such as choosing a different position that did not require in-person meetings.  Ms. Harris declined those options, and filed a complaint with the EEOC.  The EEOC filed a lawsuit against Ford, which was dismissed after Ford argued that the requested accommodation (telecommuting) would not allow Ms. Harris to meet the essential functions of her job.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit found in favor of Ms. Harris and sent the case back to the district court to determine whether physical presence at the Ford facility was truly essential to Ms. Harris’ job.  The court based its opinion on the advance of technology, finding that the workplace is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.  Because Ford permitted other employees to work from home on a limited basis, it was evident that physical presence at the workplace was not an essential function of the job.  While telecommunication is not a typical job accommodation, a court cannot rely simply on the employer’s perception as to whether an accommodation might be reasonable; a court must look to other factors, including the testimony of the employee, to make this determination.  Finally, the court held that Ford should have offered Ms. Harris a specific position, rather than simply the option of choosing another position.  This holding was not unanimous, and in fact a vigorous dissent argued that Ford had presented “overwhelming” evidence that physical presence was an essential part of Ms. Harris’ job.

As a result of this ruling, employers must think critically about their telecommuting and attendance polices.  If other employees are allowed to work from home, it will undercut the argument that telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation.  Employers should also write detailed job descriptions that explain the essential functions of the job, including those functions that require physical presence.  Additionally, employers must engage in a thorough interactive process with employees when they request accommodations.

If you have any questions concerning EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, or would like a copy of the Court’s opinion or have any question with respect to employment issues, please contact a member of our Employment Practices Liability Practice Group.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only.  It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations.  Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger.  The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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