In a complete break with previous court decisions regarding telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has not only thrown open the doors of working at home as a reasonable accommodation but also established it as a new mode of "attendance" in the modern, technologically driven workplace.
In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., fired Ford resale steel buyer Jane Harris and her request to work at home four days a week because of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) was the focus of attention.
Ford originally denied Harris's request because the company said she needed face-to-face contact with coworkers and suppliers, then placed her on leave, then terminated her. Ford, according to court records, “made the business judgment that such [group] meetings were most effectively handled face-to-face, and that email or teleconferencing was an insufficient substitute for in-person team problem-solving.” Her manager later added that she had been a problem employee, but performance reviews presented in court showed that she had been rated "excellent plus" on many occasions.
The court ruling noted:
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. 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. Instead, the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life, and recognize that the 'workplace' is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties. Thus, the vital question in this case is not
whether "attendance” was an essential job function for a resale buyer, but whether physical presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential.
In the end, the court reversed an earlier district court's summary judgment in favor of Ford and ordered a new trial.