A Big Potential Win for Telecommuting

telecommutingJane Harris, a resale steel buyer for Ford Motor Co., suffers from irritable bowel syndrome and sought accommodation from her employer to work from home four days per week, as her job mostly involved contact with suppliers and co-workers via phone and computer. Ford denied her request and later terminated her.

Harris and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Ford, charging that the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied Harris’ request to work from home as an accommodation for her IBS. The agency also charged that Ford’s firing of Harris was in retaliation after she filed a charge with the EEOC alleging discrimination under the ADA.

A lower court ruled in the company’s favor, holding that attendance at the job site was an essential function of Harris’ job and that her disability-related absences meant she was not a “qualified” individual under the ADA. The court also said the EEOC could not prove Harris’ firing was retaliatory because it was based on attendance and performance issues that pre-dated her charge filed with the EEOC.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District reversed the lower court’s rulings on both counts and said that the EEOC’s claim against Ford has enough merit to go to trial.

EEOC General Counsel David Lopez hailed the ruling as “the latest in a series of cases ensuring persons with disabilities are allowed the opportunity to use their talents fully.” The court’s decision “reaffirms the employer’s important obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation unless it can show it results in undue hardship,” he said in a statement.

For its part, Ford issued a statement that seems to suggest it will appeal the decision:

“Ford is disappointed with the court’s decision, which conflicts with earlier rulings by this court and other courts. We are evaluating our options for further review.”

Pavneet Singh Uppal, an employment attorney and regional manager partner with Fisher & Phillips in Phoenix, told the Phoenix Business Journal that the ruling could mean telecommuting is a viable option for accommodating disabled employees:

Under the ADA, regular and predictable attendance is usually considered to be an essential job function. In prior years, attendance meant physically showing up for work in person. However, as this case shows, employers must respond to technological advances. … [Telecommuting] cannot be summarily rejected and must be considered as one possible type of reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee.”