Last year in this forum, we wrote about how a federal court in the Eastern District of Michigan concluded that working from home was not a reasonable accommodation for a Ford employee who had irritable bowel syndrome.  Specifically, that court determined that telecommuting was not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act for the employee because attendance at work was an essential function of her job.  Well, that case was appealed, and in a recent ruling employers everywhere should know about, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals gave employers a lot of food for thought about whether telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation, what essential job functions truly are, and whether the workplace must be at the employer’s physical place of business.

In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit agreed that the employee’s irritable bowel syndrome was a disability because it is a physical impairment that affects a major bodily function.  The employee argued that she was otherwise qualified for her job as a steel buyer if the requirement that she be physically present at Ford were eliminated or if she were granted a telecommuting accommodation.  The Court explained that Ford needed to demonstrate that: (1) the physical presence requirement was an essential function of her job, or (2) a telecommuting arrangement would cause undue hardship to Ford.

Despite Ford’s arguments – and the lower Court’s view – that a physical presence at the worksite was critical for this job, the Sixth Circuit was not convinced.  In fact, the Court went out of its way to emphasize that technology has made working from home a more viable option since the Court previously addressed this issue. According to the Court, while attendance certainly was an essential function, being present at the office may not be.  Ultimately, the case was remanded to the trial court to determine whether this employee can perform her job duties by telecommuting.

While the Court’s treatment of particular facts in the case were troubling, the most troubling thing to come out of the ruling for employers is what it means for employers in the future.  With this opinion, the Sixth Circuit has now effectively encouraged more employees to request work-from-home arrangements – certainly in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky, where federal district courts are bound by the opinion, but probably throughout the nation, as well.  Telecommuting has certainly become more popular over the years – both in general and as a way of accommodating a disability in certain circumstances – but it is far from a one size fits all solution, and employers often have valid business reasons to deny such arrangements.

Remember, like with all accommodation requests, a request to telecommute needs to be handled through an interactive dialogue with the employee. An employer should consider each request to telecommute individually, and should determine whether or not the requested accommodation is needed to perform an essential job function.  There are some jobs where working from home will prevent an employee from completing his or her essential job duties.  Employers should identify these positions and make sure that their job descriptions clearly state that regular attendance at the employer’s place of business is an essential function of the job.  Accurate job descriptions are critical because they probably will be the first line of defense in any litigation stemming from accommodation requests.

If you have any questions about how to deal with a telecommuting request, how to handle the interactive process, or what can be done to help avoid being subjected to an ADA claim like the one Ford had to defend, promptly consulting with competent legal counsel is advised.

Lindsay Bouffard focuses her practice in the area of labor and employment law.
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