In what should be a decision of great importance for employers, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a decision on April 22, 2014, holding that employers may be required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to allow telecommuting as a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. The Court of Appeals rendered this decision despite evidence presented by the employer that personal interaction with other employees and customers was an essential function of the position held by the employee.
In EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, the employee, Jane Harris was employed as a resale buyer for Ford. In her position as a resale buyer, Harris purchased steel and resold it to entities that manufactured and supplied vehicle parts to Ford’s plants. Ford took the position that the position of resale buyer was “highly interactive,” arguing that the interactions between resale buyers and those with whom they deal professionally should optimally occur face to face.
Throughout her career, Harris repeatedly had attendance issues. In 2009, she requested that she be allowed to telecommute as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome. Ford investigated possible ways in which to accommodate the request, but ultimately rejected Harris’ request, concluding that her job required face to face interactions. Ford concluded that if Harris was unable to be physically present for her work, then she did not meet the essential qualifications for the job.
Following the denial of her request, Harris sued Ford, with the EEOC ultimately pursuing the case on her behalf. Ford then moved for summary judgment, arguing that face to face interactions were an essential function of the job of resale buyer. Because Harris was unable to be physically present, Ford argued that she was not “otherwise qualified” for the position as required by the ADA. The district court accepted Ford’s arguments and granted summary judgment. In discussing whether telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation in the case of Harris, the district court stated, “in general, courts have found that working at home is rarely a reasonable accommodation.”
The EEOC then appealed the decision of the district court to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court decision. Unlike the district court, the Court of Appeals did not defer to the employer’s conclusion that being physically present was an essential function of Harris’ position as resale buyer. Rather, the Court of Appeals reviewed other factors, such as the employee’s own sense of how much of her job involved face to face interactions and how much took place via conference calls. The Court of Appeals concluded that based on the entire record, it was error for the district court to conclude, as a matter of law, that Harris needed to be physically present at the office to perform her job as a resale buyer.
The Court of Appeals went even further by noting that prior decisions holding that being physically present in the workplace is an essential function of a particular position may well be based on antiquated notions of the “workplace.” The Court of Appeals stated:
When we first developed the principle that attendance is an essential requirement of most jobs, technology was such that the workplace and an employer’s brick-and-mortar location were synonymous. However, as technology has advanced in the intervening decades, and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location. Instead, the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life, and recognize that the “workplace” is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties. Thus, the vital question in this case is not whether “attendance” was an essential job function for a resale buyer, but whether physical presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential. Determining whether physical presence is essential to a particular job is a “highly fact specific” question. Hoskins, 227 F.3d at 726. Accordingly, we consider several factors to guide our inquiry, including written job descriptions, the business judgment of the employer, the amount of time spent performing the function, and the work experience of past and present employees in the same or similar positions. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(2).
Employers, particularly those within the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit, should find this decision troubling, particularly given the refusal of the Court of Appeals to defer to the employer's business judgment in managing its workforce. In response to this decision, prudent employers should carefully review their job descriptions to insure that where the employer sees physical presence as an essential function of a position, such a requirement is clearly delineated in the job description. Additionally, when an employer has a telecommuting policy, those policies should be reviewed to insure that they are narrowly drafted to specifically define when such an employment arrangement is allowed.