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Refusal to Accommodate Telecommute Request Does Not Violate ADA...In Certain Situations

An Employer's Refusal to Accommodate an Employee's Request to Telecommute Is Not A Violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act Where Regular and Predictable On-Site Attendance Is An Essential Job Function

On April 10, 2015, an en banc panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Eastern District of Michigan's dismissal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) claim against Ford Motor Company (Ford).

The EEOC filed a claim arising out of Ford's former employee, Jane Harris's complaint that Ford failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). She claimed that due to her irritable bowel syndrome, she needed the accommodation of telecommuting as much as four days a week when her condition flared up. Ford presented evidence that Ms. Harris, who was a resale buyer, had a "subpar" overall performance. Her attendance was erratic, and per the evidence in the case she worked on a 'sporadic and unpredictable basis.' Past efforts to telecommute on an ad-hoc basis were unsuccessful as Ms. Harris was 'unable to establish regular and consistent work hours' and did not 'perform the core objectives of the job.' Ford engaged in additional efforts to assist Ms. Harris, including the use of a reporting tool created to aid employees with attendance problems due to illness. This process did not improve Ms. Harris's attendance or her illness. When these options failed Ms. Harris requested to telecommute up to four days per week. Ms. Harris's requested accommodation did not comport with Ford's policy governing resale buyers telecommuting, which at most permitted one set day per week for telecommuting. Ford rejected Ms. Harris's requested accommodation as unreasonable and noted that the four of her ten job duties could not be performed at home.

In upholding the District Court's dismissal of the EEOC's case, the Court of Appeals noted that ADA "requires employers to reasonably accommodate their disabled employees; it does not endow all disabled persons with a job-or job schedule-of their choosing." Further, Ford's denial of Harris's requested accommodation was proper because her job required her "regular and predictable on-site attendance" as essential to her "highly interactive job." Also, Ford's past efforts to accommodate Harris and the prior past telecommuting failures supported Ford's business judgment.

Despite the Ford decision employers should be mindful that they still have to consider whether an employee's request for telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation in light of the employee's particular essential job functions. 

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