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EEOC wins appeal in ADA case regarding telecommuting

The Americans with Disabilities Act lays out a number of protections for individuals who are disabled, including protection from employment discrimination. One of the most cited provisions in the ADA is one requiring that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities except when doing so would cause "undue hardship."

American workplaces continue to change in ways that make it easier for employers to offer accommodations to all employees, regardless of whether or not they have a disability. Telecommuting in particular allows many workers to do their jobs without ever leaving the comfort of their own homes. As such, it may be getting harder for employers to argue that they cannot make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Recently, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stressed this point in the appeal of a lawsuit it filed against Ford Motor Company. The EEOC filed the 2011 lawsuit on behalf of a former Ford employee who was first denied her request to work from home and then fired after filing a disability discrimination claim with the EEOC. The request to work from home up to four days a week was an accommodation the woman was seeking because she suffers from irritable bowel syndrome.

In 2012, Ford sought and received summary judgment in the lawsuit. The company argued that the woman would not have been able to perform essential functions of her job from home. The court agreed, citing precedent that for most jobs, regular attendance is essential and telecommuting is only considered a reasonable accommodation in certain cases.

Earlier this month, however, an appellate court overturned the summary judgment for Ford and said the case should go before a jury. The appellate court found that precedent cited by the lower court was written back when telecommuting technology was not as advanced or reliable as it is today.

This case could prove influential to the policies large companies set around telecommuting, as well as what it means to reasonably accommodate employees with disabilities. Hopefully, more employers will choose to expand access to this important resource for all eligible workers.

Source: Bloomberg BNA, "Court Says Telecommuting May Be Reasonable Accommodation, Allows EEOC Case to Proceed," Kevin P. McGowan, April 22, 2014

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