The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled in Regan v. Faurecia Auto. Seating, Inc., No. 11-1356 (6th Cir. May 10, 2012) that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require an employer to accommodate an employee’s request for a schedule adjustment to allow for a commute in less heavy traffic. In doing so, the court created a circuit split on an employer’s obligation to make schedule adjustments to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in commuting to and from work.

In Regan, the plaintiff, Alisha Regan, was diagnosed in 1997 with narcolepsy. With medication and regular naps during her lunch hour, Regan’s narcolepsy is controlled to the point that she no longer falls asleep without warning, has not fallen asleep while driving since 1997, and has only fallen asleep at Faurecia once while seated at her computer. When first hired, Regan worked from 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Effective September 29, 2008, however, her employer, Faurecia Automotive Seating, Inc. (“Faurecia”) changed the standard work hours to 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. to improve efficiency and productivity.

Prior to the effective date of the change, Regan informed Faurecia that her narcolepsy would make it difficult for her to work the new hours because she would be commuting in heavier traffic. Regan requested that she be permitted to continue to work 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. or that she be permitted to work 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. without taking a lunch break, and provided a doctor’s note in support of her request. Alleging that she received no response to the doctor’s note, Regan resigned on the effective date of the schedule change, noting the “tremendous consequence” the change in work hours would have on her narcolepsy.

Regan filed claims of disability discrimination under the ADA and its Michigan counterpart. The Sixth Circuit, however, concluded that, even assuming Regan’s narcolepsy qualified her as disabled under the applicable laws, the ADA did not require Faurecia to accommodate Regan’s request for a commute during more convenient hours. In so doing, the Sixth Circuit favorably quoted language from a Florida district court that, “[w]hile an employer is required to provide reasonable accommodations that eliminate barriers in the work environment, an employer is not required to eliminate those barriers which exist outside the work environment.”

The Regan decision is at odds with the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Colwell v. Rite Aid Corp., 602 F.3d 495 (3d Cir. 2010). In Colwell, the plaintiff, Jeanette Colwell, was employed as a cashier at a Rite Aid store. Colwell informed her employer that, due to her partial blindness, it was dangerous and difficult for her to drive at night, and requested that she be scheduled to work only day shifts, as public transportation was not available after 6:00 p.m. In contrast to the Sixth Circuit’s recent decision, the Third Circuit held that, “the ADA does not strictly limit the breadth of reasonable accommodations to address only those problems that an employee has in performing her work once she arrives at the workplace.” Therefore, “the ADA can obligate an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work, if reasonable.” Without deciding the reasonableness or the burden of Colwell’s specific request, the Third Circuit noted that changing work schedules is the type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates.

Given this split in the circuits, employers should use caution when considering requests to accommodate an employee’s ability to get to and from work. Each situation is fact specific, and employers generally should engage in an interactive process with an employee requesting an accommodation, rather than short-circuit the process based on a belief that it need not honor the employee's request.