Who Needs to Be at Work to Work Anymore? Almost No One, Court Says

05 May 2014 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

Can you require your employees to be at work to do their jobs? Maybe not any longer, at least in the Sixth Circuit (which covers Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee). In a recent decision in that circuit, an employee had irritable bowel syndrome that sometimes prevented her from driving to work and, on her worse days, caused her to soil herself when she stood up. The employee, a resale steel buyer for an automotive company, requested to be allowed to work from home “as needed” up to four days a week. Her employer rejected this request on the grounds that the employee needed to interact with her coworkers and others to do her job. The employee was ultimately terminated for poor performance. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on behalf of the employee and alleged the company had failed to accommodate the employee. The district court ruled in the employer’s favor, finding that the request to telecommute up to four days a week was not a reasonable accommodation.

The appellate court disagreed. Despite finding that “the essence” of the employee’s job involved “group problem solving” that required the employee to interact with her team, suppliers and others in the company system “whenever problems arose,” it rejected the employer’s claim that such duties could not be performed from home. Instead, the court found that, in light of technological advances, most employees could do their jobs from literally anywhere, stating: “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.”

In reaching this amazing and potentially far-reaching conclusion, the Sixth Circuit has effectively rejected the rationale behind many previous cases finding that telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation only in unusual circumstances. While it remains to be seen if this recent decision will be a harbinger of similar decisions by other courts, the case is important for two reasons. First, it will almost surely embolden the EEOC to make similar arguments in virtually any case in which an employee requests to telecommute as an accommodation. Second, it is a reminder to employers that they do need to take into account technological advances when faced with accommodation requests. Even if other courts do not go as far as the Sixth Circuit did in this case, there will be times when advances in technology will make accommodations that used to be unworkable and unreasonable no longer so. Employers need to explore such advances before concluding that an accommodation cannot be done. But, according to the Sixth Circuit’s ruling, that can be done remotely from, say, the beach.

This blog is made available by Foley & Lardner LLP (“Foley” or “the Firm”) for informational purposes only. It is not meant to convey the Firm’s legal position on behalf of any client, nor is it intended to convey specific legal advice. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Foley & Lardner LLP, its partners, or its clients. Accordingly, do not act upon this information without seeking counsel from a licensed attorney. This blog is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Communicating with Foley through this website by email, blog post, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship for any legal matter. Therefore, any communication or material you transmit to Foley through this blog, whether by email, blog post or any other manner, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. The information on this blog is published “AS IS” and is not guaranteed to be complete, accurate, and or up-to-date. Foley makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the operation or content of the site. Foley expressly disclaims all other guarantees, warranties, conditions and representations of any kind, either express or implied, whether arising under any statute, law, commercial use or otherwise, including implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Foley or any of its partners, officers, employees, agents or affiliates be liable, directly or indirectly, under any theory of law (contract, tort, negligence or otherwise), to you or anyone else, for any claims, losses or damages, direct, indirect special, incidental, punitive or consequential, resulting from or occasioned by the creation, use of or reliance on this site (including information and other content) or any third party websites or the information, resources or material accessed through any such websites. In some jurisdictions, the contents of this blog may be considered Attorney Advertising. If applicable, please note that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Photographs are for dramatization purposes only and may include models. Likenesses do not necessarily imply current client, partnership or employee status.

Related Services