Sixth Circuit Issues Telecommuting Decision Favorable to Employers
June 5, 2015
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act involving a telecommuting request from a Ford employee who suffered from health problems. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753 (6th Cir. 2015).
The EEOC alleged that Ford failed to reasonably accommodate the employee because it denied her telecommuting request, and retaliated against her for bringing the issue to the EEOC. The majority of the divided en banc court affirmed summary judgment for Ford, emphasizing that regular in-person attendance was an essential function of, and prerequisite to perform other essential functions of, interactive jobs, including the employee’s job as a resale buyer.
The Court determined that the employee’s job fell under the “general rule” that “an employee who does not come to work cannot perform any of his job functions, essential or otherwise.” The Court found that the employee’s failure to predictably and regularly attend work on-site rendered her unqualified to perform the job as a matter of law, even with a reasonable accommodation. Factors that weighed into the Court’s decision included Ford’s description of the job’s requirements, the employee’s poor performance, the employee’s failed efforts at telecommuting in the past, and the informal terms of the employee’s proposed telecommuting schedule.
With regard to the retaliation claim, the Sixth Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could not find that Ford would have retained the employee given her past failures to perform and her inability to satisfy the essential elements of her position. The employee received poor evaluations before and after filing her complaint. Although the timing of the termination four months after she filed the complaint was suspicious, the Court determined that suspect timing in and of itself was not enough to prove discriminatory intent.
This decision is favorable to employers in that it may increase the burden on employees to prove that an accommodation of telecommuting can satisfy a position’s essential functions. Whether telecommuting can be an appropriate accommodation will still depend on the circumstances of each request, but this decision indicates that the Sixth Circuit is willing to favor an employer’s description of a position’s essential functions.