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Terminated employee fights alleged wrongful discharge

Defendant-Ford Motor was improperly granted summary judgment on plaintiff-EEOC's disability discrimination and retaliation claims because the evidence created a genuine dispute whether the charging party (Harris) was "otherwise qualified" to work as a resale buyer, and whether she was terminated in retaliation for filing a charge with the EEOC. Harris, who suffered from IBS, requested that Ford "accommodate her disability" by allowing her to telecommute several days a week. Ford refused, and she filed a charge with the EEOC. Ford later terminated her employment. There was no question that Harris was "disabled under the ADA." The issue was whether she was "'otherwise qualified' for the resale steel buyer position." When determining whether "physical presence" at the Ford facilities was essential to Harris' job, the court considered "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." Ford argued that Harris' "physical attendance at the Ford workplace was critical to the group dynamic of the resale-buyer team." However, the employer's business judgment is only one factor to be considered. Although "physical presence at an employer's facility may be an essential function for some positions," the court concluded that the EEOC "offered evidence that casts doubt" on whether that was the case in Harris' situation. "[A]dvancing technology has diminished the necessity of in-person contact to facilitate group conversations." Ford "offered no evidence to prove that Harris would be less able to perform these site visits if she worked partially, or even primarily, from her home rather than Ford's facilities." The court concluded that Harris' job did not "actually require[] face-to-face interactions with clients[,]" and it was "not persuaded that positions that require a great deal of teamwork are inherently unsuitable to telecommuting arrangements." Alternatively, the EEOC showed that Harris was qualified for the resale buyer position with a reasonable accommodation (a telecommuting arrangement) for her disability. As for the EEOC's retaliation claim, there remained "a genuine dispute as to whether Ford was truly motivated by retaliatory intent or by a reasoned business decision to terminate an underperforming employee." Thus, Ford was not entitled to summary judgment.

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