Federal Court Says Telecommuting is a “Reasonable Accommodation” for Disabled Employee

woman sitting at desk holding papers laptop in front of her

When a Ford Motor Company steel buyer requested permission to telecommute up to four days per week to help control her irritable bowel syndrome Ford said “no.” Ford’s position was that the employee’s attendance was an essential function of her job because this employee’s job required “group problem solving,” which was most effectively handled in-person. Ford’s position was that if the employee “was too ill to come to work, she would be considered too ill to work.” She was terminated in 2009 as a result of repeated absences from work despite the fact that she was keeping up with her workload by working from home.

In 2011, the EEOC filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that Ford discriminated against the employee by failing to accommodate her disability. The case is now causing a stir in the business world due to its far-reaching implications regarding when an employee being physically present at the workplace is an essential job function.

The Backstory

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (the “ADA”) requires, among other things, covered employers to provide reasonable accommodations to certain disabled individuals unless doing so would cause an undue hardship for the employer.

Title I of the ADA defines “reasonable accommodation” as any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. Reasonable accommodations generally fall under three categories: modifications and adjustments that alter the job application process, modifications that alter the work environment, and those that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by the employer’s similarly situated employees without disabilities.

Courts have historically held that telecommuting – working from home – is unlikely to be a “reasonable accommodation” in most situations. For example, in 1997, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it would be hard for disabled individuals to convince the court they were entitled to work from home because, the Sixth Circuit reasoned, regular attendance is an essential function of most jobs.

The Ford Case

In 2012, a federal district court applied the 1997 Sixth Circuit precedent and agreed with Ford, granting summary judgment to the company. The Sixth Circuit, however, reversed that decision. The Sixth Circuit held 2-1 that telecommuting might be a reasonable accommodation for disabled individuals, even when attendance is an essential job function. In doing so, the court reversed its general stance that telecommuting would normally be unreasonable.

The court said that “attendance” and “physical presence” are not inherently one and the same. Rather, depending on the facts in question, telecommuting may allow a disabled individual to perform his or her essential job functions from home – perhaps challenging an employer’s traditional notion of what constitutes the “workplace.” As a result of significant advances in technology since 1997, the Sixth Circuit held that in certain situations telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation.

Impact on Future ADA Requests

Although the entire Sixth Circuit has agreed to re-hear this case, it stands to become a landmark decision for the EEOC and employers nationwide. The case potentially expands the scope of the “workplace” to include anywhere an employee can perform his or her job duties.

The questions presented in this case are interesting and ever evolving. And when these types of situations arise, a knowledgeable employment law attorney can be of critical importance to both employers and employees. If you have questions about reasonable accommodations, feel free to contact any of our employment attorneys today!

Image: Thinkstock/gpointstudio
*This article is very general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. Readers with legal questions should consult with an attorney prior to making any legal decisions.

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