A federal district court in Michigan has granted summary judgment to an employer that denied an employee’s request to work at home because of her irritable bowel syndrome. EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128200 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 10, 2012). This case was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), which significantly expanded the scope of protections for disabled. Even so, the decision shows that the law still has some limits.
Jane Harris worked at Ford Motor Company as a resale buyer, responsible for purchasing steel and reselling it to stampers who supplied Ford with vehicle parts. She also handled disputes that arose between the steel sources and stampers. The position was, in Ford’s words, “highly interactive.” This interaction is most effective when performed face to face, and the resale buyer often would visit supplier sites.
Harris was often absent from work, and one of her supervisors testified that he took on her job duties or asked her co-workers to do so because she was not there. By 2008, her performance rating placed her in the bottom ten percent of her peers. Then, in early 2009, Harris asked that Ford accommodate her IBS by permitting her to work at home up to four days a week. The request was denied. Ultimately, Harris was fired.
Harris filed an ADA and retaliation charge with the EEOC, which took up her cause and sued Ford on her behalf. The court granted Ford’s motion for summary judgment, finding that because of her excessive absenteeism, Harris was not a “qualified individual with a disability.” While the EEOC argued that Harris could have handled her essential job functions at home the court disagreed, focusing on Ford’s statements that her job involved personal interaction with co-workers and suppliers. The court distinguished the case relied on by the EEOC, Humphrey v. Memorial Hosps. Assoc., 239 F.3d 1128 (9th Cir. 2001), because in that case the job duties of the employee, a medical transcriptionist, “could be performed entirely on a computer and did not require interaction with others.”
There are several take-aways here. First, telecommuting may be appropriate as a reasonable accommodation in some cases, but it is not a “one size fits all” sort of thing. An employer needs to analyze such a request on a case-by-case basis and make sure that it is not changing the essential functions of the job. Second, the ADA still has some balance to it, even after passage of the ADAAA. Third, (perhaps this is self-evident) just because the EEOC brings the lawsuit does not mean that it is right.