Employers may face a growing need to consider telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a recent federal court opinion.
In E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co., 752 F.3d 634 (6th 2014), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals observed that communications technology has advanced to the point where it is no longer the "unusual" case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties from home.
The case involved an employee who worked as a resale steel buyer for Ford Motor Company. She asked to telecommute several days per week to accommodate a health condition. Ford rejected her request after making a business judgment that her position required face-to-face interaction which could not be accomplished via email or teleconferencing.
After the District Court granted summary judgment to Ford, the Court of Appeals reversed, remanding the matter for trial. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the definition of "workplace" has evolved from a bricks-and-mortar location in the past to a more modern notion of "anywhere an employee can perform her job duties." The Court noted that while some job positions certainly require a physical presence at the employer's location, e.g. a custodian, neo-natal nurse, or airline customer-service agent, the position at issue did not necessarily compel such a presence. The Court observed that Ford allowed other resale buyer to telecommute on a more limited basis, meaning Ford should have engaged in an interactive process with the employee in question to see if a reasonable alternative existed.
The lesson for employers is that they should evaluate evolving technology when it comes time to consider reasonable accommodations, including an employee's request to work from home. Employers also should bear in mind that Courts expect employers to engage in the "interactive process" with employees who request accommodations, i.e. have a meaningful dialogue to look for an accommodation.