Monday, April 20, 2015

Sixth Circuit Says It’s Still Okay to Make Employees Come to Work

Last November we reported on the 6th Circuit case of EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. (read that post here).  At that time the Sixth Circuit reversed a District Court grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant Employer, Ford Motors, in an ADA action by one of its employees on the basis that the company did not explore the option of telecommuting for plaintiff.  

In that case, EEOC v. Ford Motor Co, the plaintiff was a resale buyer who suffered from severe irritable bowel syndrome. A resale buyer essentially acts as an intermediary between suppliers and the company to ensure that the company has sufficient steel for its parts manufacturers. Plaintiff found it nearly impossible to report to work every day because of her IBS. She exhausted her FMLA leave as well as a number of other leave of absences and flex benefits provided by the defendant. She even tried telecommuting on a trial basis which resulted in, among other things, her performing duties outside of the regular workday for resale buyers, to the dissatisfaction of plaintiff’s supervisor and the company. Additionally, defendant offered other accommodations, including relocating plaintiff’s workstation closer to the restroom and offering her another position which it believed was more suitable to telecommuting. 

The District Court granted summary judgment for Ford but the Sixth Circuit reversed by a 2 – 1 panel vote, finding that defendant failed to engage in the interactive process. The Sixth Circuit en banc has now held in favor of the Defendant. The court found that regular and consistent attendance was an essential function of that plaintiff’s job, because of the need for those in that job to engage in face-to-face communication and work with one another.

While the employer won this one, they shouldn’t dispense with the idea that telecommuting may be a reasonable accommodation in some instances.  As always, this is a case by case analysis. Employers can help themselves by examining their job descriptions not only to update them when appropriate but in doing so, to determine whether actual attendance at the workplace is essential, and if so, why.