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A federal appeals court ruling that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation for a disabled Ford Motor Co. worker under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act is a significant victory for employers that could have created problems for businesses had the court ruled otherwise.
“Had it gone the other way, the floodgates would have opened'' for employees to seek telecommuting accommodations, said Michael J. Soltis, a shareholder with law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. in Stamford, Connecticut, of last week's 8-5 ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Co.
Jane Harris worked as a resale buyer for Ford Motor Co. and suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, according to court records in the case. In 2009, Ms. Harris' supervisors denied her request to telecommute up to four days a week as an accommodation for her disability, concluding her position was not suitable for it. She was terminated in 2009, after she had filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC.
Last week's en banc ruling reversed an April 2014 ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel that ruled in the EEOC's and Ms. Harris' favor. The most recent ruling, which granted Ford summary judgment dismissing the case, said the ADA “does not endow all disabled persons with a job — or job schedule — of their choosing” and that “regular and predictable attendance” was a requirement of Ms. Harris' job with Ford.
An EEOC spokeswoman said, “We are reviewing the decision and considering our options.”
“It's a big win for employers and is pretty much of a bench slap to the EEOC in terms of it not even being a close case, according to the en banc majority,” said Gerald L. Maatman, a partner at law firm Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. in Chicago.
The earlier appeals court panel ruling “was a step away from how courts had ruled” on this issue, and created employer uncertainty that has now been resolved, said Mark. J. Girouard, a shareholder with law firm Nilan, Johnson, Lewis P.A. in Minneapolis.
Despite the ruling, however, employer should still look at each telecommuting requests “on its own merits,” advised Jonathan W. Yarbrough, a partner with law firm Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete L.L.P. in Asheville, North Carolina.
An appeals court has reinstated a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by a court clerk who was terminated three weeks after requesting an accommodation for her social anxiety disorder.