In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. Apr. 10, 2015), a case we blogged about previously here and here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld summary judgment in favor of Ford and against the EEOC in an Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) failure to accommodate lawsuit. The Sixth Circuit held that the person on whose behalf the EEOC brought suit was not qualified within the meaning of the ADA because the accommodation proposed by the EEOC of allowing her to telecommute up to four days per week was unreasonable. The Sixth Circuit also held that the EEOC did not provide evidence sufficient to allow a trier of fact to find that Ford retaliated against the charging party for bringing an EEOC charge.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling represents an important win for employers and a significant defeat for the EEOC as the Commission attempts to make telecommuting a reasonable accommodation option for more and more jobs.

Case Background

Jane Harris was a resale buyer for Ford, serving as an intermediary between steel suppliers and the companies that use steel to produce parts for Ford. Id. at 2. Her job was “highly interactive.” Id. As part of her job duties, she was required to meet with suppliers at their sites and Ford employees at Ford’s site, and was further required to meet with Ford employees and suppliers “at a moment’s notice.” Id. at 2-3. In Ford’s judgment, this made “a resale buyer’s regular and predictable attendance in the workplace . . . . essential to being a fully functioning member of the resale team.” Id. at 3.

Throughout her six-year tenure as a retail buyer, Harris had irritable bowel syndrome, an illness that caused her to have severe fecal incontinence. Id. at 3-4. Because of this incontinence and the stress that it caused her, Harris frequently missed work and would otherwise often come in late and leave early. Id. at 3. Her performance suffered, and she ended up ranked in the bottom 10% of her peers for two consecutive years. Id.

Ford tried several accommodations to assist Harris, but none solved her performance problems. Id. at 4. Harris then proposed that she be allowed to work up to four days per week from home as an accommodation. Id. Ford concluded that, out of Harris’ ten job responsibilities, four could not be performed from home, four could not effectively be performed from home, and the two other responsibilities were “not significant enough to support telecommuting.” Id. at 5. Ford thus concluded that the only way a telecommuting accommodation could work would be if it were on a set schedule and if Harris could come to Ford’s worksite as needed on days scheduled for telecommuting. Id. Harris could not agree to that. Id.

Since Harris’ proposed accommodation would not work, Ford offered her other accommodations, including moving her closer to the restroom and jobs more suited for telecommuting. Id. Harris turned these accommodations down, sent an email claiming that the denial of her accommodation request violated the ADA, and filed a charge with the EEOC. Id.

After filing the charge, Harris’ performance continued to slide and, after Harris failed to complete a Performance Enhancement Plan intended to improve her subpar performance, Harris was terminated. Id. at 5-6.

The EEOC filed suit against Ford, claiming that Ford failed to accommodate Harris’ disability and that Ford terminated Harris in retaliation for her decision to file a charge with the EEOC. Id. at 6. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Ford, finding that “working from home up to four days per week is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and that the evidence did not cast doubt on Ford’s stated reason for terminating Harris’ employment: poor performance.” Id. A divided Sixth Circuit panel reversed the district court, after which the Sixth Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc. Id.

The Sixth Circuit’s En Banc Ruling

The Sixth Circuit began its discussion by pointing out that any accommodation that involves removing an “essential function” from a job “is per se unreasonable.” Id. at 7. It then considered whether on-site attendance was essential to Harris’s job.

The Sixth Circuit concluded that “regularly attending work on-site is essential to most jobs.” Id. at 8-9. It concluded this based on numerous U.S. Court of Appeals decisions holding that this is the case, as well as EEOC regulations and informal guidance suggesting that on-site attendance is normally essential. Id. at 7-9. It further concluded that on-site attendance is even more essential in “interactive” jobs like Harris’ job. Id. at 7-8. It thus concluded that Harris’ proposed accommodation was unreasonable. Id. at *10.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected each of the EEOC’s arguments as to why summary judgment was not appropriate. The Sixth Circuit held that Harris’ testimony that she could perform her job functions from home could not create a “genuine dispute of fact” because courts should not “credit the employee’s opinion about what functions are essential” since, if they did, “every failure-to-accommodate claim involving essential functions would go to trial.” Id. at 11 (emphasis in original).

The Sixth Circuit found the fact that other resale buyers telecommuted did not make Harris’ proposed accommodation reasonable because she was requesting a much larger accommodation than Ford had given to any of its other resale buyers. Id. at 11-12. The other resale buyers who telecommuted did so on one set day per week and agreed to come in on their telecommuting day if needed, while the EEOC argued that Harris should have been allowed to telecommute up to four days per week on an unscheduled basis without an agreement to come in on telecommuting days on an as-needed basis. Id. at 12. The Sixth Circuit found the difference between the telecommuting Ford gave to other resale buyers and the telecommuting requested by Harris and the EEOC to be so different that it found the EEOC’s arguments in this regard to be “legally and factually unsupported.” Id.

The Sixth Circuit also criticized the EEOC’s position because it would create a perverse incentive for employers to deny limited telecommuting as an accommodation for their employees so that they would not have to grant other employees far more expansive telecommuting accommodations:

[I]f the EEOC’s position carries the day, once an employer allows one person the ability to telecommute on a limited basis, it must allow all people with a disability the right to telecommute on an unpredictable basis up to 80% of the week (or else face trial). That’s 180-degrees backward. It encourages — indeed, requires — employers to shut down predictable and limited telecommuting as an accommodation for any employee. A good deed would effectively ratchet up liability, which would undermine Congress’ stated purpose of eradicating discrimination against disabled persons.

Id. (emphasis in original).

Finally, the Sixth Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument that advances in technology themselves are enough to create an issue of fact as to whether on-site attendance was an essential function of Harris’s job. It first pointed out that the fact of advancing technology “in the abstract” is not proof that technological advances “made [Harris’s] highly interactive job one that can be effectively performed at home.” Id. at 13. It then discussed the fact that “email, computers, telephone, and limited video conferencing . . . . were equally available when courts around the country uniformly held that on-site attendance is essential for interactive jobs,” thus finding that these technologies do not make on-site work attendance non-essential in interactive jobs. Id. Based on this analysis, the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to Ford on the EEOC’s failure to accommodate claim.

The Sixth Circuit then considered whether Ford retaliated against Harris for making a charge with the EEOC. While agreeing that the timing of Harris’ discharge “seem[ed] suspicious,” it found that “temporal proximity cannot be the sole basis for finding pretext.” Id. at 16. The Sixth Circuit concluded that the other evidence suggesting pretext was insufficient to create a genuine issue of fact. It found that Harris’ meetings with a non-decisionmaker could not prove pretext because “[a]ctions by non-decisionmakers cannot alone prove pretext. Id. at*17. It next found that Harris’ poor performance review after the charge could not establish pretext because it was as poor as her last pre-charge performance review. Id. at 18. Finally, the Sixth Circuit held that Harris’ testimony that the Performance Enhancement Plan she failed to complete was designed to “ensure her failure” did not create an issue of fact because it was “so utterly discredited by the record that no reasonable jury could believe it.” Id. at 19. Based on this analysis, the Sixth Circuit also upheld the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to Ford on the EEOC’s retaliation claim.

Implications For Employers

This case is a significant win for employers and a significant loss for the EEOC as it attempts to expand telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Employers can use this ruling to support their position in ADA actions brought by the EEOC as well as private plaintiffs who assert that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Of special interest is the Sixth Circuit’s observation that “email, computers, telephone, and limited video conferencing . . . . were equally available when courts around the country uniformly held that on-site attendance is essential for interactive jobs,” which can be used to undercut inevitable arguments by ADA plaintiffs that on-site attendance is outdated in light of technological advances. Moreover, employers can use this case when ADA plaintiffs claim they should have been given a more extensive version of an accommodation given to another employee.  Specifically, employers can argue that the degree of the accommodation matters and that allowing plaintiffs to use such an argument would create a perverse incentive for employers to deny accommodation requests.