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TELECOMMUTING: ACCOMMODATION UNDER THE ADA?

August 4, 2016 | Posted in: Discrimination, Disability, ADA

Last year, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., the 6th Circuit held that “telecommuting” AKA working from home, was a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Our blog post discussing the initial decision can be found here- http://www.thefriedmannfirm.com/reasonable-accommodations-for-ada-disability/

This was fantastic news for most people, those with disabilities and those without.  As our society becomes more technoligically advanced, the options available to us for non-traditional ways to work become more abundant.  Employees are able to work from home, attend virtual conference calls and meetings, Skype or Facetime with clients and a variety of others.  These things allow employers and employees to be more flexible with their work hours and can allow employees to work from home and work remotely if they are traveling.  However, the number of people with disabilities in Ohio who are permitted to do this could be decreasing soon because of a recent decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

On April 10, 2015, the 6th Circuit issued its rehearing decision on EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. (available here- http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/opinions.pdf/15a0066p-06.pdf) and rejected the EEOC’s claim that Ford Motor Co. violated the ADA by not allowing a disabled employee to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Eight judges ruled in favor of Ford, while five dissented (disagreed) with the majority’s decision.

The plaintiff involved in this case is Jane Harris.  Ms. Harris was employed by Ford as a resale buyer, whose job duties included acting as an intermediary between Ford’s steel suppliers and its parts manufacturers.  She was responsible for meeting with suppliers, buying steel from them and selling it to parts manufacturers, who then manufactured parts and supplied them to Ford for its assembly lines.  Ford claimed that face-to-face interaction with the manufacturers was an essential function of Harris’s job and it would not allow her to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation for her disability.  Harris suffered from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) which made it very difficult for her to be away from the bathroom for extended periods of time, as her symptoms were unpredictable.  She requested to be able to work from home, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Ford told her it could not allow this because it would prevent her from performing one of the essential functions of her job, interacting with manufacturers.  Ford offered her other accommodations that she rejected so she ultimately filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC and the EEOC sued Ford on her behalf.  The district court where her lawsuit was filed concluded that Ford did not have to offer telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation, as face-to-face interaction was an essential function of her job.  The EEOC appealed this decision and a divided panel of 6th Circuit judges reversed, concluding an issue of fact existed as to whether telecommuting was a reasonable accommodation for Harris.  The full 6th Circuit vacated that decision and reheard the appeal en banc.  On April 10, 2015, summary judgment for Ford was affirmed.

This is bad news for most people becaue we value workplace flexibility.  This doesn’t mean that all employees will be disallowed from telecommuting but rather, that an employer will take a good look at the employee’s job duties to decide whether those duties can still be performed while working from home.  In Harris’s case, she tried telecommuting on several occasions and Ford argued those attempts were unsuccessful because she really couldn’t perform her job duties while working from home. In fact, Harris agreed that four of her ten primary job duties could not be accomplished while working from home.  Ford presented evidence that other employees were permitted to telecommute but only did so one day per week and agreed to come to work if they were needed.

The important thing to take away from this decision is that telecommuting CAN still be a reasonable accommodation but it depends on the job duties of that particular employee.  If you have questions about whether telecommuting could be a reasonable accommodation for you, please contact the Ohio Employment Lawyers at The Friedmann Firm and we will be happy to assist you.