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Telecommuting might be a reasonable accommodation

April 25, 2014

Allowing an employee to work four to five days per week from home may be required as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In a recent case, an employee requested that Ford Motor Company allow her to telecommute four to five days per week to accommodate her disability (irritable bowel syndrome).  Ford rejected her request, determining that an essential function of the employee’s job as a team member required her to be present for on-site, client meetings and “in-person team problem-solving” meetings at work.  The employee rejected alternative accommodations proposed by Ford and ultimately filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  She was terminated shortly thereafter.

The EEOC filed suit against Ford for violations of the ADA.  In reversing a Michigan federal district court’s grant of summary judgment to Ford, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Ford failed to carry its burden of proving: (1) physical presence was an essential job function; and (2) a telecommuting accommodation would create an undue hardship.  The court reasoned that the employee could do her job from home.  For example, she could attend meetings by phone or by computer; and client meetings could be rescheduled, if necessary, when a flare up of her bowel condition occurred.  In addition, Ford allowed other employees to telecommute from time to time.  Thus, the court concluded, it was not unreasonable to assume the job could be performed from home.

What does this decision mean for employers?  Working from home may be a required accommodation even when the employer believes working in the office is necessary.  It will now be easier for employees to successfully pursue cases based on a claim that they were not permitted to work from home, even for four to five days per week.  Employers should carefully draft or update job descriptions.  Detailed drafting could prevent litigation regarding which job functions are “essential” and whether an employee could perform the work elsewhere.  Additionally, employers may want to consider tightening telecommuting policies or eliminating them altogether.

If you have any questions about this decision or would like to have your job descriptions or telecommuting policy reviewed, please contact one of Honigman’s Labor and Employment attorneys.