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Federal appellate court weighs in on reasonable accommodations

The state of technology today allows many workers to telecommute, either for a limited part of the workweek or, in some cases, every day. Many companies find allowing workers to telework is beneficial, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Roughly 15 years ago the EEOC began to recognize telecommuting as a possible reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities in appropriate cases.

Our New York readers may understand that not all companies allow workers to telecommute. Some jobs may not be appropriate for people to work from home through electronic means. Courts have struggled with the issue over the years.

A recent appellate court ruling dealt with that issue in the Sixth Circuit, which does not directly govern courts in New York. The case involved a worker who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome. She was allowed to take intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to deal with her condition. However, her employer noted that the woman’s job performance began to suffer.

Her supervisor decided to allow the woman to work from home for a trial period to see if telecommuting would help the job performance issue. The supervisor later claimed that the woman’s physical absence from the office was not working out and ended the trial period.

The company had a telecommuting program that allowed many workers to apply to work from home for part of the work week. The woman with IBS, a condition that qualified as being covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act without dispute in a disability discrimination lawsuit, asked to join the telecommuting program as a reasonable accommodation for her condition. She sought to telecommute four days each week. The request was denied.

The woman was ultimately fired. She sued Ford Motor Company for discrimination based upon a claim that the company failed to accommodate her disability. She also sued for wrongful termination, claiming that she was fired in retaliation for filing a complaint over the alleged disability discrimination issue.

The trial court dismissed the claim, primarily on the basis that with today’s technology, physical presence in the office may not always be necessary for workers to complete the essential functions of a job. The court found that the worker’s proposal to telecommute four out of five days was not unreasonable. The appellate court remanded the case for further findings of whether physical presence in the office for the particular job is an essential function of the position.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, “EEOC v. Ford, No. 12-2484,” April 22, 2014

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