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Telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation for a disabled Ford Motor Co. worker under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Friday in an en banc ruling that reversed a previous split decision from the court.
Jane Harris worked as a resale buyer for Ford Motor Co. and suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, according to court records in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Ford Motor Co. 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.
Ms. Harris filed a discrimination charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 2009, and she was terminated later that year, according to court filings. In 2011, the EEOC filed suit on Ms. Harris' behalf, alleging Ford had violated the ADA by failing to accommodate Ms. Harris' disability and by retaliating against her for filing a charge with the EEOC.
The U.S. District Court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, dismissed the case in 2012 “in Ford's favor, but a panel of the 6th Circuit appeals court revived the suit in a 2-1 ruling last April, records show. The appeals court found then that Ford failed to establish that Ms. Harris' physical presence in the workplace was an “essential function of her position.”
The 6th Circuit agreed in September to vacate its earlier ruling and reconsider Ms. Harris' case en banc.
On Friday, the 6th Circuit ruled 8-5 that the ADA “does not endow all disabled persons with a job — or job schedule — of their choosing,” and that “regular and predictable on-site job attendance” was a requirement of Ms. Harris' job with Ford. Therefore, the court majority said telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation for Ms. Harris' disability.
The majority's decision was based partly on Ms. Harris' “poor performance and high absenteeism,” which the court said showed that Ms. Harris was unqualified to perform the essential functions of her job at Ford.
The “EEOC must prove that Harris ... can perform the essential functions of a resale buyer with a reasonable accommodation,” the majority opinion reads. “The record shows that Harris cannot regularly and predictably attend the workplace — an essential function, and a prerequisite to other essential functions — even with the past reasonable accommodations of telecommuting trials and specialized plans to improve her attendance.”
Dissenting justices in the case said that both the EEOC and Ford presented disputing facts that should be weighed by a jury. For instance, while Ford argued in court that Ms. Harris' job required “a great deal of face-to-face teamwork,” the EEOC showed that Ford allowed other resale buyers to telecommute and that 95% of Ms. Harris' job was performed by phone and email.
The “telecommuting arrangements of other resale buyers undercut Ford's claim that, at any given moment, resale buyers must engage in spur of the moment, face-to-face trouble-shooting in order to perform their jobs effectively,” the dissent reads. “By definition, unexpected problems might arise when a resale buyer is telecommuting, and he or she therefore could not participate in face-to-face, spur-of-the-moment meetings to address those problems. Yet Ford still determined that those resale buyers could effectively perform the teamwork functions of their jobs while being absent from the office one to two days per week.”
A Phoenix disability support services company is being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for allegedly discriminating against disabled employees by refusing to provide them with reasonable accommodations, the agency said.