6th Circuit rules against EEOC in employment, telecommunications case

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Ford did not violate ADA, says Court

In a divided 8-5 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled April 10 that Ford Motor Co. did not violate federal law when it refused to allow an employee with irritable bowel syndrome to telecommute from home four days a week.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate their disabled employees; it does not endow all disabled persons with a job — or job schedule — of their choosing.” Judge McKeague wrote in the majority opinion.

Jane Harris worked at Ford from 2004 to 2009, when she was fired. Her job was that of a resale buyer, which required her to meet with parts manufacturers and other Ford employees. In 2008, Harris requested to her supervisor that she be able to work from home four days a week, although she would be on call to come into the office to meet with clients.

Under the ADA, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities. Employees are considered qualified if they can perform the essential functions of the position.

Although many other courts have found telecommuting to be a reasonable accommodation, the 6th Circuit found that Harris’ resale buyer job required her to be at Ford’s office.

“Regular and predictable on-site attendance was essential for Harris’s position, and Harris’s repeated absences made her unable to perform the essential functions of a resale buyer,” the court wrote. “The required teamwork, meetings with suppliers and stampers, and on-site ‘availability to participate in . . . face-to-face interactions,’ all necessitate a resale buyer’s regular and predictable attendance.”

Harris filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2009, after her request was denied. Later that year, she was given a low job rating, stating that she ranked in the bottom 10% of her peers in performing her job duties, leading to her eventual job termination. Harris subsequently filed a separate action against Ford, alleging her job rating constituted retaliation for her decision to file her initial complaint.

Ford Motor Co. argued, among other things, that Harris had been unable to perform the job in previous attempts at telecommuting, had refused other accommodations – such as placing her work desk close to the bathroom – and that Harris’s work had been consistently sub-par.

In 2011, the EEOC sued Ford Motor Co. alleging both that it violated the ADA in its failure to reasonably accommodate Harris, and by unlawfully retaliating her. The EEOC argued that Ford inconsistently applied its reasonable accommodation rule, noting that other employees were allowed to telecommute, though the company’s policy was that telecommuting was only allowed once per week.

The next year, the District Court ruled for Ford Motor Co. on both counts. In April 2014, a three judge panel of the 6th Circuit reversed in favor of the EEOC.

The full 13-member 6th Circuit granted review of the case. With the most recent decision, the 6th Circuit has found that the Ford Motor Co. is correct on both counts as a matter of law, thus preventing the case from proceeding to a jury, unless the Supreme Court grants review of the case.