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An appeals court has reinstated a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission disability discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed on behalf of a disabled Ford Motor Co. worker who was denied a telecommuting arrangement and terminated.
Jane Harris was hired as a resale buyer in 2003 at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford, where her job involved acting as an intermediary between steel suppliers and stampers, the companies that use steel to produce parts for Ford, according to Tuesday's ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Co.
Ms. Harris suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, an illness that causes fecal incontinence, and her symptoms worsened over time. She began to take intermittent time off under the Family Medical Leave Act when she experienced severe symptoms, according to the appeals court ruling.
In 2005, her supervisor allowed her to work on a flex-time telecommuting schedule on a trial basis but decided it was unsuccessful because Ms. Harris could not establish regular and consistent hours, according to the ruling.
Ms. Harris formally requested permission to telecommute on an as-needed basis as an accommodation for her disability in 2009, but her supervisors concluded her position was not suitable for telecommuting.
In April 2009, Ms. Harris filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC. She was terminated later that year.
In 2011, the EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor, Mich., charging that Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate Ms. Harris' disability and by retaliating against her for filing a charge with the EEOC.
The federal court granted summary judgment dismissing the case, ruling in part that Ms. Harris did not qualify for her failure-to-accommodate claim because of her excessive absenteeism.
The three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit reinstated the case in a 2-1 ruling.
“Harris is indisputably disabled under the ADA,” according to the ruling. Ford has the burden of proving her physical presence in the workplace is an “essential function of her position” but “cannot indisputably carry its burden,” states the ruling.
“Advancing technology has diminished the necessity of in-person contact to facilitate group conversations,” states the ruling. “Although Ford has provided significant evidence that physical attendance was an essential function of the resale buyer position, the EEOC has offered at least enough evidence genuinely to dispute this conclusion,” the ruling states.
The majority ruling held also that “Ford has not met its burden of proving that a telecommuting accommodation, even if reasonable, would create an undue hardship.”
It also overturned dismissal of the retaliation claim. “Viewed in a light most favorable to Harris,” the evidence presented “creates a genuine dispute as to whether Ford was truly motivated by retaliatory intent or by a reasonable business decision to terminate an underperforming employee,” says the ruling.
“The EEOC has presented evidence on which a reasonable jury could conclude that Ford retaliated against Harris for filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC,” said the court, in remanding the case for further proceedings.
The dissenting opinion states the EEOC has failed to prove that Ford's proffered reason for its action was a pretext for discrimination.