News & Insights

Working From Home – A Reasonable Accommodation?
May 2, 2014
by Robert Conte


South Bend / Mishawaka, IN – The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, reviving an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit, rendered a decision that may find favor with other Courts. The Court’s ruling, in an EEOC case against Ford Motor Company (EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. Cir. April 22, 2014), centered on an ex-Ford Motor Company employee with irritable bowel syndrome, who sought telecommuting as an ADA accommodation, an issue that could lead to more employees asking to work from home.

In what the Court described as a “highly fact specific question”, it acknowledged that “for many positions, regular attendance at the workplace is undoubtedly essential”. Nevertheless, the Court challenged the assumption “that the ‘workplace’ is the physical worksite provided by the employer,” and that “the workplace and an employer’s brick-and-mortar location (are) synonymous.” The Court went on to state that attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location. On this point the Court noted, “The ‘workplace’ is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties.”

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling that the “workplace” is anywhere than an employee can perform their job duties should make employers pause and think about the proposed cons of any request to telecommute to accommodate a disability. Although the Court did not say telecommuting is appropriate for all jobs in all circumstances, the board language of the opinion does open the door for other employees to request telecommuting in a variety of new situations. An employer’s instant response of “that won’t work” could create a problem for the employer who wants to fight the request. The employer’s reason for the denial better be a good one, supported by strong documentation/evidence.

Will this decision change the notion that the “workplace” as we know it will no longer mean an employer’s brick & mortar place of business? Will it also mean that attendance at the workplace no longer requires showing up in an employer’s physical location? Will employers (and the EEOC) be rethinking what attendance means in today’s workplace? Will the assumption that attendance is an essential job function become just another factor in an employer’s business judgment that will be further analyzed?

Employers should review their work rules and policies and consider updating those relating to telecommuting and job descriptions that make an employee’s physical presence an essential part of the job and rejecting outright any work from home request. A blanket policy rejecting such requests may become more difficult to defend. It may be time for employers to rethink the longstanding policy that the physical site of the employer’s facility or plant is the workplace. The Court’s decision may be viewed as “persuasive authority” for other jurisdictions to follow. If that happens, you do not want to get caught on the outside looking in.

This memo is for general guidance only and is not intended as legal advice. When questions regarding the ADA and/or reasonable accommodation arise in your workplace, a telephone call to an experienced employment lawyer is recommended.