In a recent ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals expanded the instances where telecommuting could be considered reasonable accommodation for employees who were disabled.EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, Jane Harris was hired in 2003 to be a resale buyer at Ford, a position that required her to be the intermediary between steel suppliers and “stampers,” or companies that used steel to manufacture parts for Ford. One role of the resale buyer was to respond to emergency supply issues in order to ensure that there was no gap in steel supply to the parts manufacturers. While some individual tasks, like updating spreadsheets and periodic site visits, were involved, the core of the job was to group problem solve, requiring the buyer to be available to interact with members of the resale team, suppliers, and other members of Ford when there were problems. Ford managers had determined that these types of meetings were best conducted face-to-face, and that email and teleconferencing did not work as substitutes.
Harris suffered from a condition called irritable bowel syndrome, which caused her significant distress. On her worst days, she was unable to drive to work or stand up from her desk without soiling herself. As a result, she began to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). During her employment, Harris was considered to be a competent, but not perfect employee. Performance reviews taken from 2004 to 2008 rated her as “excellent plus” and noted that she worked diligently with “minimal supervision.” However, she received low rankings on her contribution assessment, and on most job-related skills in 2007 and 2008. After she began taking FLMA leave, her absences hurt her job performance. In order to help her keep up, Harris’s supervisor let her do a flex-time telecommute schedule where Harris worked evenings and weekends to keep up with her work. However, Ford did not credit her with work performed outside of core business hours because she could not engage in team problem solving or access suppliers for information.
In 2009, Harris requested to telecommute on an as-needed basis, but Ford rejected the request. Instead, a Ford personnel relations representative suggested alternative accommodations like moving Harris’s cubicle close to the restroom or finding a job better for telecommuting. Harris rejected these options and complained that her supervisor was beginning to harass her due to her medical leave absences.
In 2009, Harris filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. After Harris received a low performance review, she was filed a few months later. The EEOC filed a claim on Harris’s behalf in district court, but the court held that the EEOC would not prevail because Harris was not a qualified individual due to her excessive absenteeism. The district court also found Harris’s request to telecommute up to four days a week not a reasonable accommodation for her position. Finally, the district court found that the EEOC could not prove that Harris’s low performance reviews and termination were retaliation for her seeking reasonable accommodation.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed. First, the court found that Harris’s condition met the definition of “disabled” under the ADA. Next, Harris had provided enough evidence to create an issue of fact as to whether she was otherwise qualified for the position. That meant the burden shifted to Ford to prove that it was essential for Harris to be physically present, or that telecommuting was an undue burden. Ford was unable to meet the burden. The Sixth Circuit noted that with the changing times, technology was making it easier for people to perform work without always being at the worksite. Since Harris’s job did not require face-to-face contact, and telecommuting did not pose an undue burden, the Sixth Circuit ruled in Harris’s favor and remanded the case back to district court for further proceedings.
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