On April 22, 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Michigan District Court’s grant of summary judgment for the Defendant in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., concluding that there is “a genuine dispute as to whether (Plaintiff Jane) Harris was qualified to work as a resale buyer and whether she was terminated in retaliation for filing an EEOC charge.” Prior to filing an EEOC complaint, Ms. Harris was by all accounts a competent resale buyer. However, she suffered from severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which often made her unable to control her bowel. She requested that the company accommodate her disability by allowing her to telecommute, but Ford denied this request and she resorted to taking FMLA leave, missing work and trying to make up for it by working at home. Her work suffered, her supervisors criticized and disciplined her, and ultimately the company tried to argue that her inability to do her job was their reason for terminating her. However, she and the EEOC argued, and the Sixth Circuit ended up agreeing, that these performance problems resulted, not from Ms. Harris’s work per se, but primarily from the company’s failure to provide the accommodations she requested.
The Court acknowledged that a majority of jobs require the employee to be physically present in the workplace, and that this requirement has long been the norm for most workers. In this case, Ford’s management expressed its “business judgment” that “physical attendance was essential for resale buyers because face-to-face interactions facilitate group problem-solving.” The Court did not reject this judgment, but it noted that its “inquiry does not end simply because Ford has expressed its business judgment” that the employee’s physical presence is essential. But the Court noted that advances in technology have made it feasible for many employees to telecommute and work remotely, and that there was evidence showing that Ms. Harris’s specific job was done mostly by telephone even when she was physically at work. In short, the Court concluded, it is a triable issue of fact whether Harris could or could not do her job remotely, and thus also a triable issue of fact whether allowing her to do so would be a reasonable accommodation that would be required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Defendant argues that it would not be reasonable to require them to accommodate Ms. Harris as she requested because, as a resale buyer, she must interact on a regular basis with other team members and access information that is not available during non-“core” business hours. The Court noted that this argument “confuses remote work arrangements with flex-time arrangements.” That is, in arguing against the reasonableness of accommodating Ms’ Harris’s disability, the company pointed to the problems that had been caused by her missing work. However, the court concluded, it is not clear that a telecommuting arrangement would cause such problems, or hinder her work at all. Ford’s burden at the next stages of litigation is thus now clearer: it must show that physical presence at the company work site, and not just regular attendance at the workplace (wherever it is), is a requirement of Ms. Harris’s job. If not, it might turn out that accommodating a person’s disability can mean letting them work remotely.