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Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

The Sixth Circuit and Ford Motor Company, That’s Who

            In EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, --- F.3d ---, No. 12-2484 (April 10, 2015), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that regular and predicable on-site job attendance is an essential function of most jobs, such that an employee’s request to work from home as a disability accommodation will be unreasonable in most cases. The Court’s opinion is a reversal from its previous holding in the same case that advances in technology and other areas of modern life allow many employees to remotely perform their essential job duties.

            Facts:

            Jane Harris, a Ford employee since 2003, suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (“IBS”). Harris’ IBS interfered with her work performance to varying degrees—sometimes not at all, sometimes a lot. Harris asked Ford to accommodate her IBS by allowing her to work from home on an as-needed basis, up to four days a week. Harris’ request was consistent with Ford’s policies that allowed employees to work remotely “one to four” days per week. Ford declined Harris’ request for an accommodation.

            The EEOC sued Ford on Harris’ behalf, arguing that Ford violated the American’s with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate Harris’ IBS. The district court granted judgment in favor of Ford, finding that Harris’ request to work from home was not reasonable. In reaching its decision, the district court relied on several cases standing for the general proposition that working from home is rarely a reasonable accommodation because daily attendance is an essential function of most jobs.

            Court of Appeals Decision 1:

            On appeal, a three-judge panel reversed the district court’s decision. The appellate court recognized the line of cases relied upon by the district court but held that

[w]hen 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.

Accordingly, the question is not whether daily attendance is an essential job function—it is—but whether physical presence at the job site is an essential job function. The appellate court found that there was enough evidence to raise a question about whether physical presence was an essential function of Harris’s job.

            Court of Appeals Decision 2:

            The panel’s decision was vacated by the entire Court of Appeals, which agreed to rehear the case with all of the judges. On rehearing, the Court of Appeals agreed with the district court, reaffirming the general principle that “regularly attending work on-site is essential to most jobs.” To that effect, the Court of Appeals held that “an employee who does not come to work cannot perform any of his job functions, essential or otherwise.”

            What it all means:        

            It remains an uphill battle for employees to work from home as a reasonable disability accommodation. The Court of Appeals’ initial decision was one of the first cases recognizing that an employee can fulfill her essential job functions while working remotely. But the Court’s second decision keeps in place the general rule that on-site attendance is essential to most jobs, notwithstanding developments in technology that make working remotely easy and effective.

            Your employer has a legal obligation to work with you in good faith to accommodate your disability. If you feel that your employer has failed to fulfill its legal obligation, or has otherwise discriminated against you because of your disability, give us a call to see how we can help.