Can Irritable Bowel Syndrome be Grounds for a Reasonable Accommodation?
In EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling that granted summary judgment to Ford and remanded the case for further proceedings. The issue at hand was whether a telecommuting arrangement could be a reasonable accommodation for an employee suffering from a debilitating disability.
Jane Harris was fired from Ford after she asked to telecommute four days per week due to her irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”). Harris was hired as a resale buyer where her primary role was to respond to emergency supply issues. Her tasks involved updating spreadsheets, periodic site visits of the production process, and group problem solving. According to her deposition, Harris believed that being permitted to work from home would “relieve her stress and alleviate her IBS symptoms, and that any episodes would be less disruptive at home because they would not affect her coworkers.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on behalf of Harris. The EEOC argued that Ford violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to provide her a reasonable accommodation. An employer may not “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. §12112(a). An employer “discriminates” under the ADA if the employer does not make “reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or an employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business.” Id. at § 12112(b)(5).
Harris’ IBS was indisputably classified as a disability. The question for the court was whether Harris was “otherwise qualified” for the resale buyer position. The EEOC argued that if the physical-presence requirement was taken away, Harris was nonetheless qualified for the position given her consistently positive performance reviews. Because the court found that Harris had provided sufficient evidence to create a genuine dispute of material fact that she was qualified for resale-buyer position, the burden shifted to her employer to prove that her physical presence was a requirement of her job function or that the telecommuting arrangement would pose an undue hardship on them.
Ford argued that a telecommuting arrangement was not a reasonable accommodation for resale buyers because as part of their job duties they must interact on a regular basis with other employees. Ford also argued that Harris’ constant absences meant that managers had to shift a portion of her responsibilities to other co-workers which in turn led to a strain in morale.
Ultimately, the court rejected the employer’s claim that her duties could not be performed from home. The court reasoned that the law must respond to the changes in technology and the advances in technology permitted Ford to provide this reasonable accommodation. On their second cause of action, the EEOC argued that her employer retaliated against Harris. Harris claimed she received negative reviews and was eventually terminated because she filed her claim with the EEOC. The court found that a reasonable jury could find that Ford retaliated against Harris for filing a discrimination claim with the EEOC.
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