In EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., (6th Cir. April 22, 2014), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (Judge O’Meara) granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims of failure to accommodate disability and retaliation.

Employee was a resale buyer for defendant employer who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. Consequently, employee requested that she be allowed to “telecommute” several days per week as a reasonable accommodation. Defendant employer refused, arguing that the essence of employee’s job was group problem-solving, which required that employee be available to interact with other employees and suppliers. According to defendant, “such meetings were most effectively handled face-to-face, and that email or teleconferencing was an insufficient substitute . . . .” In short, defendant took the position that if employee “was too ill to come to work, she would be considered too ill to work.” Employee then filed a charge of disability discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Three months later, she was placed on a “Performance Enhancement Plan” and her employment was terminated the following month. The EEOC filed a complaint on employee’s behalf, claiming failure to accommodate disability and retaliation. Defendant moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted.

The appellate court reversed, finding that employee’s physical presence at work was not an “essential” element of her job.  The court noted that “[d]etermining whether physical presence is essential to a particular job is a ‘highly fact specific’ question” that must take into account several factors enumerated in the applicable federal regulations. To wit, these are “written job descriptions, the business judgment of the employer, the amount of time spent performing the function, and the work experience of past and present employees in the same or similar positions.” Importantly, the court acknowledged that “advancing technology has diminished the necessity of in-person contact to facilitate group conversations. The world has changed since the foundational opinions regarding physical presence in the workplace were issued: teleconferencing technologies that most people could not have conceived of in the 1990s are now commonplace.   *   *   *   Therefore, we are not persuaded that positions that require a great deal of teamwork are inherently unsuitable to telecommuting arrangements.” Finally, the court noted that, although defendant offered to reassign employee to an alternative position as an accommodation, this option could only be considered if accommodating employee’s current position would pose an undue hardship. Because defendant could not show such an undue hardship, it could not force employee to accept an alternative position.