Sixth Circuit Sides With EEOC And Holds That Telecommuting May Be A Reasonable Accommodation Under The ADA

In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a jury will determine whether Ford was required to allow an employee with irritable bowel syndrome to telecommute as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The employee was a resale steel buyer, who interacted with a team of resale buyers at Ford, steel suppliers, part manufacturers, and others to prevent gaps in the steel supply chain.  Ford concluded the employee could not perform all of her essential job duties while telecommuting, including in-person meetings with suppliers and her team.  The employee argued that much of her work could be done and was, in fact, regularly done by e-mail and telephone.  While Ford allowed a flex-schedule trial run, it did not allow a true telecommuting trial run, according to the employee. The district court ruled in favor of Ford, refusing to second guess Ford’s business judgment that regular attendance at the workplace was essential.  The Sixth Circuit, however, concluded that advancing technology has diminished the necessity of in-person contact to facilitate group discussions and has made telecommuting a potential reasonable accommodation of a disability.  The Sixth Circuit’s decision is significant because it is at odds with numerous cases, including the Sixth Circuit’s own precedent, in which courts have recognized that regular attendance at the workplace is an essential job function for most jobs, including jobs that require extensive team work.  Indeed, the dissenting Judge highlighted that, when addressing work-at-home arrangements, the Sixth Circuit has previously stated that it would be very “unusual” for an employee to be able to perform all work-related duties from home.  Time will tell whether the Sixth Circuit’s decision will be an outlier, as there were issues relating to the interactive process which created problems for Ford in the case, or whether other courts will hold that telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation of a disability.