Employer Not Required to Offer Telecommuting Accommodation to Employee Who Could Not Perform Job’s Essential Functions

A recent decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a very important topic within the realm of disability discrimination law:  specifically, when is telecommuting a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability? In the case of one Ford Motor Co. employee, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the employer’s refusal to allow an employee to telecommute four days per week was not the denial of a reasonable accommodation, but a case of an employee unable to perform the essential functions of her job.

The employee, Jane Harris, was a resale buyer with Ford who had irritable bowel syndrome. Harris’ job performance steadily declined during her time with Ford, in part due to her condition. Ford had occasionally approved telecommuting for Harris, but, even with the accommodation, the employee’s performance continued to worsen.

Nevertheless, Harris asked for a new accommodation:  specifically, an allowance to telecommute as much as four days per week. Ford determined, and Harris acknowledged, that a resale buyer could not perform several mandatory job duties from home. In fact, of the job’s 10 core duties, four could not be done via telecommuting, and another four could not be done effectively by a buyer working from home. The employer ultimately rejected the employee’s request but offered to accommodate her in other ways, such as moving her work station closer to the bathroom or transferring her into a different position better suited for telecommuting.

Harris rejected Ford’s offers. After several more months of Harris’ unsatisfactory performance, Ford terminated the employee. The EEOC sued the employer, alleging that it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate her disability and firing her in retaliation for her discrimination claim. The trial court ruled in favor of Ford, concluding that allowing an employee to telecommute up to 80% of the time was not a reasonable accommodation and that Ford had ample proof that it fired Harris for prolonged poor performance, not her launching a discrimination claim.

The full Sixth Circuit agreed with that outcome. That’s because there are several hurdles an employee must meet in a disability discrimination case, and Harris fell short on a basic one. Before an employee may be entitled to an accommodation for her disability, that employee must first be qualified to perform her job. Being qualified, within the confines of the ADA law, means that the employee must be able to “perform the essential functions of” her job “with or without reasonable accommodation.”

This was where Harris fell short. Her job as a resale buyer required interacting with other buyers, meeting with suppliers and stampers, and attending team meetings. In other words, the resale buyer job was a highly interactive one, such that its essential duties could not be completed by an employee telecommuting as much as Harris requested.

The employee’s retaliation claim also did not succeed on appeal. Although the appeals court viewed Ford’s timing (firing Harris four months after she filed with the EEOC) as suspicious, the employer had ample evidence supporting its claim of poor performance. A retaliation claim requires showing that the stated reason for termination was only a pretext and that the real reason was discriminatory. Ford had rated Harris in the bottom 10% of all its resale buyers before she ever filed her initial complaint with the EEOC, so her pretext argument failed.

This case is an important lesson for both Tennessee employees and employers. While employers must take care to ensure that they are reasonably accommodating their employees with disabilities, those employees must first show that they are capable of meeting the demands of their jobs before their employers must accommodate them. For answers about disability discrimination and your workplace, contact the knowledgeable Tennessee employment discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our experienced attorneys have many years helping other clients like you and are ready to assist you as well.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Decides Employer Lacked Knowledge of Employee’s Disability, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Aug. 5, 2015

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Georgia Truck Driver’s Termination Did Not Violate ADA, FMLA, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Feb. 11, 2015

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