Decision: The plaintiff in EEOC V. Ford Motor Co. suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which caused her to be frequently absent from work. She requested permission to telecommute from home on an as-needed basis as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Ford refused on the grounds that plaintiff’s position was not suitable to telecommuting. The district court granted summary judgment to Ford on the plaintiff’s failure to accommodate claim under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), holding that: (i) the plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA because she could not fulfill her essential job function of regular attendance and (ii) plaintiff’s request was not a reasonable accommodation because her position required face-to-face interactions with other team members. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that there was sufficient evidence that plaintiff was a qualified individual, either because her physical presence at the workplace was not an essential function of her job or because she requested a reasonable accommodation. In so holding, the Sixth Circuit recognized that “communications technology has advanced to the point that it is no longer an unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties from home,” and that regular attendance requirements can no longer be assumed to mean regular attendance at the employer’s physical location.
Impact: Courts have typically recognized regular attendance as an essential function of the position, and therefore employers have not been required to offer telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation. The Sixth Circuit’s decision may indicate that courts are becoming more receptive to the idea that employees’ regular, physical presence at the workplace is no longer an essential function of every job and also may result in increased requests from employees with disabilities to work from home. However, the Sixth Circuit reiterated that “whether physical presence is essential to a particular job is a highly fact specific question.” Accordingly, employers should carefully analyze an employee’s request for a telecommuting accommodation rather than summarily denying that request in reliance upon the principle that regular attendance is always an essential job function.