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Work attendance can mean telecommuting, 6th Circuit says in reasonable accommodation case

Posted Apr 24, 2014 5:53 PM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Attendance at work is an essential part of many jobs, but it can’t be assumed to mean an actual presence at a physical site, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently found in an Americans with Disabilities Act reasonable accommodation case.

The action was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on behalf of a Ford Motors resale buyer who was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. According to Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog, plaintiff Jane Harris was tasked with responding to emergency steel supply issues and making sure manufacturers always had adequate steel supplies available.

She was terminated after asking to work from home several days a week, according to the April 22 opinion (PDF). Harris’ job required group problem solving and interactions with other employees and suppliers, according to the opinion, and Ford took the position that her work was most effectively handled in person, with teleconferencing being an insufficient substitute.

Since the EEOC could demonstrate that Harris was qualified for the job if attendance at the office is not considered, the majority wrote, the burden was on Ford to prove her physical presence was an essential function of her work. The employer didn’t make that showing, according to the 6th Circuit, in a 2-1 ruling.

“When we first developed the principle that attendance is an essential requirement of most jobs, technology was such that the workplace and an employer’s brick-and-mortar location were synonymous,” the majority wrote. “However, as technology has advanced in the intervening decades, and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location.”

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