Reversing its prior opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) to allow an employee “to work from home on an as-needed basis, up to four days per week.” As stated in the opening sentence of the majority opinion: “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to reasonably accommodate their disabled employees; it does not endow all disabled persons with a job – or job schedule – of their choosing.” Opinion, p. 2.
Jane Harris (“Harris”), a Ford employee with irritable bowel syndrome, was a resale buyer for Ford. As a resale buyer, Harris was an intermediary between steel suppliers and parts suppliers. While some of her workplace interactions occurred by email and telephone, Harris’s job was highly interactive and required her to meet in person with steel suppliers and other employees in order to effectively perform the core functions of her job. Ford determined that regular and predictable attendance at the workplace was an essential function of her job.
Harris’s irritable bowel syndrome caused her, among other things, to experience uncontrollable diarrhea. Her subpar work performance was compounded by increased absenteeism due to her health condition. Her absenteeism, in turn, meant that her teammates had to perform her job duties that she could not perform from home. Ford adjusted her work schedule, allowing her two opportunities to telecommute on an ad hoc basis. They both failed. Ford also placed Harris on “Workplace Guidelines”, a reporting tool designed to improve her attendance. It also failed.
In response, Harris proposed that she be able “to work up to four days per week from home.” Opinion, p. 4. Harris further proposed that she, not Ford, determine on an ad hoc basis, which four days she could telecommute. Ford had a limited telecommuting policy. For resale buyers, it allowed reliable employees to telecommute one set day per week. Ford determined that Harris’s proposed accommodation was unreasonable. Instead, Ford proposed that Harris either move closer to the restroom or search for another job within Ford that may allow for more telecommuting. Harris declined and filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Her performance at Ford continued to deteriorate, and Ford eventually terminated Harris for poor work performance. The EEOC sued Ford alleging disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA.
On September 10, 2012, the District Court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. The EEOC appealed. The Sixth Circuit initially reversed the District Court on both issues, but then granted en banc review of its first decision, meaning the ruling was vacated and the case would now be heard by all judges of the Sixth Circuit, instead of just three.
In its most recent opinion, the Sixth Circuit stated that the text of the ADA, the regulations of the ADA, the EEOC’s informal guidance, and common sense all supported the following holding: “Regular, in-person attendance is an essential function – and a prerequisite to essential functions – of most jobs, especially the interactive ones.” Opinion, p. 9. In this case, Harris’s job as a resale buyer required teamwork, in person meetings, and was interactive, all of which required regular and predictable attendance at the workplace. Despite Ford’s attempts to reasonably accommodate Harris, she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job. Thus, she was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA, and her claims failed as a matter of law.
If you have any questions regarding the ADA, please contact Ray Rinkol.