Published Date: 05/19/2014
By George Ports
The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently decided that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had presented sufficient facts for trial in its disability discrimination lawsuit against the Ford Motor Company. The EEOC had charged that Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by denying a former employee the opportunity to telecommute and by firing her after she filed an EEOC charge.
The agency sued Ford Motor in 2011, alleging that the company’s denial of an employee’s request to work from home up to four days a week as an accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome violated the ADA, and that Ford had then retaliated against her by firing her after she filed an EEOC charge. The company’s telecommuting policy authorized employees to work up to four days a week from a telecommuting site. The employee was a resale steel buyer whose major job responsibilities required telephone and computer contact with coworkers and suppliers.
A district court granted summary judgment for Ford Motor, holding that attendance at the job site was an essential function of Harris’s job, and that Harris’s disability-related absences meant that she was not a “qualified” individual under the ADA. The lower court also ruled that Harris’s telecommute request was not a reasonable accommodation for her job. The district court also said the EEOC could not prove that the employee’s termination was retaliatory because it was based on attendance and performance issues that pre-dated her charge filing.
The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court on both counts [EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. (6th Cir. No. 12-2484)]. The court noted that “the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context . . . and recognize that the ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.” The majority held that the “highly fact-specific” question was whether presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential, and that a jury should decide that issue. The court also held that the EEOC had created a question for the jury about why Ford terminated the employee, and whether it was in retaliation for filing a charge or because of genuine performance problems.
To access more information about the EEOC and the laws it enforces, go to www.eeoc.gov.