Businesses Need Not Accommodate An Employee Who Cannot Perform "Essential Functions" of Their Job

Posted by Edward Sharkey on Thu, 06/06/2013 - 04:00

Businesses continue to struggle with issues relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"). One very gray area is whether the parts of a job that a disabled employee cannot perform are "essential functions" of the job. If a disabled employee cannot perform the essential functions of a job, an employer does not have to retain or accommodate him.

In a recent case brought under the ADA, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reiterated one of the most important protections for employers under the act: in order to succeed on a discrimination claim under the ADA, an employee must prove, among other things, that she can perform the “essential functions” of the job.

In this case the employee was a resource coordinator (“RC”) for an energy company. In order to provide coverage and handle emergency situations 24/7, the employer required all of its RCs to work a rotating schedule, which included shifts of different lengths as well as day and night shifts.

The employee, a diabetic with a circulatory problem, found it difficult to manage her disease while working a rotating shift. Her doctor recommended that she only work day shifts in order to better manage her diabetes. The employer denied her request. Instead, the employer offered her a choice of several other assignments, all of which the employee rejected.

Due to complications resulting from a surgery, the plaintiff took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. When she returned, she was placed on a temporary light-duty assignment – which included 8-hour day shifts – based on a doctor’s release. After the temporary light-duty assignment expired, the employee’s doctor recommended that she remain on a similar schedule.

The employer again denied the employee’s request. It did, however, allow her to take paid leave while it attempted to work out a solution. When no solution could be reached, the employee filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and eventually brought her case to court.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the employer. On appeal, the 8th Circuit affirmed that decision, also ruling for the employer. The court held that “an employee must (1) possess the requisite skill, education, experience, and training for [her] position; and (2) be able to perform the essential job functions, with or without reasonable accommodation” in order to state a claim for discrimination on the basis of disability under the ADA.

The court accepted the employer’s argument that, for purposes of its RC position, working a rotating shift was an essential job function. The court laid out several factors used to determine whether a job function is “essential,” and ultimately found persuasive the fact that ability to work rotating shifts was listed on the employer’s written job description for the RC position, as well as the employer’s testimony that the requirement helps train RCs on the job and spreads out the less desirable shifts evenly among RCs.

Finally, the court noted that the “essential function” inquiry does not end the analysis. The employee may also demonstrate her ability to perform the essential functions of the job with a reasonable accommodation. In this case, however, the employee’s proposed accommodations – reassignment to a different position or relaxing the rotating shift requirement – did not change the outcome.

As this case illustrates, discrimination claims under the ADA often involve complicated burden-shifting analysis and fact-specific determinations by the court. One thing that businesses can take away from this case is that having carefully-written job descriptions in place for all its employees may help defend against discrimination suits brought under the ADA.

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