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Sixth Circuit: Telecommuting Is an Unreasonable Accommodation If Employee Presence Is Essential Job Function

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Company, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, held that an employee’s request to work from home for up to four days per week, when on-site attendance was an essential function of the job, was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The Sixth Circuit granted summary judgment to Ford Motor Company on the employee’s failure to accommodate and retaliation claims.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the panel decision and affirmed summary judgment in favor of Ford. The Court held that:

  • The employee’s proposed accommodation of working from home for up to four days per week was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because regular, predictable, on-site attendance was an essential function of her position.
  • Because the employee’s constant absences rendered her unable to perform the essential functions of her position, she was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.

The court rejected the EEOC’s attempts to point to a genuine issue of material fact warranting the denial of summary judgment, noting that:

  • The employee’s affidavit regarding her ability to perform the essential functions of the resale buyer position from home was not persuasive because she could not show that those functions could be performed as effectively from home as on-site.
  • The EEOC’s reliance on the fact that other resale buyers telecommuted failed to consider that the other resale buyers:

o   telecommuted no more than one or two days per week; and

o   agreed in advance to come in to work on their designated telecommuting day if needed.

  • General improvements in technology over time did not necessarily mean this particular job could be done while telecommuting.
  • It was not necessary to determine if Ford denied the employee’s proposed accommodation out of bad faith or failed to put sufficient effort into the interactive process because employee’s was not a qualified individual under the ADA.
  • The employee’s retaliation claim failed because a reasonable jury would not find that Ford terminated the employee’s for any reason other than poor job performance.

Practical Implications

The Sixth Circuit’s en banc decision appears to be a straightforward application of the principle that a requested accommodation that eliminates an essential function of the job is not a reasonable accommodation. In the majority’s view, when an employee’s physical presence at work is an essential function of the position, telecommuting is not a reasonable accommodation. The court expressed its concern about putting employers in a position where they must choose between approving an unpredictable telecommuting arrangement of up to 80% of the week or facing trial on a failure to accommodate claim.

Ean Harris