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Labor and Employment Law

Sixth Circuit Vacates ADA Telecommuting Decision

 by Jami K. Suver 

In April 2014, the Sixth Circuit, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., decided that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, even if the employer’s business judgment dictates otherwise [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers]. The court reversed a grant of summary judgment to Ford on the EEOC’s claim that Ford failed to accommodate an employee’s irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”) by refusing to let her telecommute most days. However, in September 2014, the court agreed to reconsider that decision, vacating its April 2014 decision and restoring the case to the docket as a pending appeal. 

Jane Harris, a resale buyer for Ford, sought to work from home four days per week because of her IBS. Ford allowed other employees to work from home, including several other buyers who telecommuted one scheduled day per week. Ford asserted that Harris’s job, as an intermediary ensuring no gap in steel supply to Ford part manufacturers, required her physical presence at work. Harris refused other proffered accommodations, including moving her office closer to the restroom or finding a different job with Ford for which she could telecommute.

The court noted that “[T]he law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context . . . and recognize that the ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.”  The dissent countered that “the lesson for companies from this case is that if you have a telecommuting policy, you have to let every employee use it to its full extent, even under unequal circumstances, even when it harms your business operations, because if you fail to do so, you could be in violation of the law.”

Ford and interested business groups echoed the dissent’s concerns. Ford moved for a rehearing, which was granted by the Sixth Circuit. We will continue to watch this case and will update you as events unfold.

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