ED Mich seal.pngBy Christopher DeGroff and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Recently, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., No. 11-CV-13742 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 10, 2012), Judge John O’Meara of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan rejected the EEOC’s attempt to pursue allegations that the Defendant – Ford Motor Company – failed to accommodate its employee in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and then retaliated against that same employee for filing a charge with the EEOC. Siding with the employer, the Court dismissed the EEOC’s claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the Defendant. Thus, the ruling in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. is welcome news for employers in terms of compliance strategies for responding to employee requests for reasonable accommodations.

Factual Background

Jane Harris worked at Ford for seven years as a resale buyer. In that position, she purchased and resold steel to a company that manufactures and supplies car parts to Ford’s assembly plants. Harris’ position required that she was available to be “called upon to engage in problem-solving to avoid disruptions in the supply chain.” Id. at 2. Harris was also required to act as the intermediary between two suppliers – an interaction that is “most effectively performed face to face and often includes supplier site visits.” Id. 

Harris took medical leave for irritable bowel syndrome and upon her return to work, Ford found her job performance questionable at best. Ford recorded that Harris received extremely low ratings for two consecutive years and also classified Harris as having “chronic attendance issues[.]” Id. Despite Harris’ inconsistent and irregular work hours, her supervisor provided accommodations for her disability including: “permitting [Harris] a later start time on Mondays, permitting her to work from home on an ad hoc basis, reassigning time-sensitive assignments, and agreeing to permit her two. . . telecommute periods.” Id. at 3. Unsatisfied with the accommodations, Harris demanded that Ford allow her to telecommute up to four times a week. Based on Harris’ past performance, unreliability, and the job requirements of her position, Ford denied Harris’ request. Ford, however, did offer Harris’ alternatives to telecommuting, which included moving her desk closer to the restroom, and assistance in finding a different job within the company where telecommuting would be more amenable.

 In response, Harris filed a charge with the EEOC alleging that Ford denied her a reasonable accommodation for her irritable bowel syndrome. After Harris filed the charge, her work performance continued to decline. In fact, Harris knowingly processed documents with incorrect pricing and did not correct the errors even after she was informed of the mistake. Id. at 6. Ford informed Harris that if her performance did not significantly improve, she could be terminated. Id. at 7. Thirty days later, Ford terminated Harris and she filed another charge with the EEOC, alleging that Ford retaliated against her by terminating her employment. Subsequently, the EEOC brought suit against Ford, alleging that it failed to accommodate Harris’ disability in violation of the ADA. The EEOC also alleged that Ford retaliated against Harris for filing the charge with the Commission. After discovery, Ford moved for summary judgment.

 The Court’s Ruling

The Court examined the EEOC’s two allegations in turn. As to the failure to accommodate claim, the Court explained that in order to establish a case for failure to accommodate under the ADA, the EEOC must prove: (1) Harris is disabled within the meaning of the Act; (2) she is otherwise qualified for the position, with or without reasonable accommodation; (3) Ford knew or had reason to know about her disability; (4) Harris requested an accommodation; and (5) Ford failed to provide the necessary accommodation. The Court reasoned that the EEOC could not get past the second requirement because it could not establish that Harris is a “qualified” individual. Noting that Harris was absent more often than she was at work, the Court reasoned that she was clearly unqualified for her position because “basic attendance is a requirement of most jobs.” Id. at 10. The Court also refused to displace Ford’s business judgment that Harris could not perform her job from home. Id. The Court concluded that Harris’ situation “does not present the exceptional case where a work-at-home accommodation would be reasonable.” Id. Thus, the Court found that Harris’ proposed accommodation of working from home up to four days per week was not reasonable, and therefore granted Ford summary judgment on the EEOC’s failure to accommodate claim.

The Court also swiftly dismissed the EEOC’s retaliation claim. The Court reasoned that in light of the significant evidence on the record, the EEOC could not “cast doubt” on Ford’s stated reason for terminating Harris. Id. at 13-14. Harris’ low performance reviews, irregular attendance, and failure to progress while she was on the 30-day performance improvement plan all bowed in favor of Ford terminating Harris’ employment. 

Implications For Employers

The EEOC’s strategic enforcement program has made clear that the Commission is going to “gear up” the investigation and subsequent litigation in the ADA arena. However, the Court’s ruling in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. serves as a strong reminder to the Commission that courts usually give employers deference in determining what is a reasonable accommodation for their employees. 

Readers can also find this post on our new EEOC Countdown blog here.