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Sixth Circuit Sides With Management in Dispute Over Employee’s Request to Telecommute

In a potentially important decision over workplace accommodations in an environment when telecommuting is more common, the Sixth Circuit ruled on April 10 that an employer does not need to permit an employee to work from home when an essential aspect of the employee’s position requires being in the office.

Jane Harris worked for Ford Motor Company as a resale steel buyer (an employee who buys raw steel from steel suppliers and then resells it to parts suppliers). The position was described as requiring a high degree of personal interaction with both types of suppliers. Ms. Harris had a medical condition – irritable bowel syndrome – which caused her to miss work and negatively affected her performance. The company tried to help by adjusting her schedule and twice permitting her, on a trial basis, to telecommute. During these trial periods, Ford still felt Ms. Harris was unable to develop a consistent schedule and perform the core portions of the position.

Ms. Harris did not agree and requested the accommodation of telecommuting up to four days per week; Ford had permitted her to work four days with extended hours. Ford determined this request was unreasonable because most of the job’s responsibilities could not be performed effectively or at all from home. Ms. Harris claimed that Ford’s position violated the Americans With Disabilities Act and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Ms. Harris’s performance on the job continued to slip, and eventually the company terminated her employment.

The EEOC sued Ford for failure to accommodate and for terminating her in retaliation for filing her charge. The district court granted Ford summary judgment but the Sixth Circuit initially reversed. In the more recent decision on April 10, the Sixth Circuit reinstated the district court’s decision in favor of Ford. The court observed that “regular, in-person attendance is an essential function – and a prerequisite to essential functions – of most jobs, especially the interactive ones.”

With respect to Ms. Harris’s position, the Court concluded: “[r]egular 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 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.” The EEOC argued that other employees were permitted to telecommute but the Court distinguished between Ms. Harris’s requested telecommuting schedule and the schedules of other employees who were allowed to telecommute no more than one fixed day per week. Finally, the Court cautioned, “Our ruling does not . . . require blind deference to the employer’s stated judgment. But it does require granting summary judgment where an employer’s judgment as to essential job functions – evidenced by the employer’s words, policies, and practices and taking into account all relevant factors – is ‘job-related, uniformly-enforced, and consistent with business necessity.’ That aptly describes Ford’s judgment regarding regular and predictable on-site attendance for resale buyers.”

The decision is an important one for employers to consider. The court noted that improved technology is no substitute for consistent and predictable attendance at work, and thus employers can reject, in appropriate circumstances, a request for an accommodation of working from home. But the case also suggests that a more modest request to telecommute – something less than full-time – might have been reasonable, particularly if it was provided to other employees. 

If you have questions concerning the content of this post, please feel free to contact Brian Muething at bmuething@kmklaw.com or Mark Chumley at mchumley@kmklaw.com for additional information. 

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