Friday, 31 May 2013 14:04
By Lee Williams
When an employee asserts a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the employee is required to prove that they were qualified to perform the “essential functions” of their job. How the law defines what constitutes an essential function is based on a number of different factors; however, based on a common sense interpretation of the phrase, most individuals would likely assume the term “essential functions” refers to those activities performed on a daily or weekly basis. According to a recent decision from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, essential functions may be performed on a much less frequent basis.
A company was in the business of delivering frozen food to customers at either the home or place of business. An employee was hired as a general manager of one of the company’s delivery depots. General managers were, beyond their duties in overseeing their depots, in charge of training new employees to drive the delivery trucks and occasionally work delivery routes. The company’s job description for general managers required such employees to meet U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) eligibility requirements. These requirements included obtaining a proper driver’s license – specifically, qualification to operate a truck weighing over 10,000 pounds – and the appropriate Medical Examiner’s Certificate (MEC) of fitness to perform the required work. The employee’s “conditional offer of employment” provided the same requirements.
By all accounts, the general manager performed his job admirably and excelled in his position. In March 2008, the general manager suffered a severe injury to his eye. He held the appropriate MEC and DOT qualifications through July 2009. DOT regulations require “[a]ny driver whose ability to perform his/her normal duties has been impaired by a physical or mental injury” must be “medically examined and certified.” The general manager’s physician refused to issue him an MEC or appropriate waiver. Subsequently, the company placed the general manager on a 30-day leave of absence with instructions to either obtain an MEC or a non-DOT qualified position with the company. When the general manager was unable to do either within 30 days, he was terminated and later brought a lawsuit against the company alleging violations of the ADA.
What makes an essential function?
The law defines an essential function as “the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with the disability holds.” Courts determine whether a job function is essential by considering: (1) the employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential; (2) written job descriptions prepared before advertising and interviewing applicants; (3) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function; (4) the consequences of not requiring the current employees to perform the function; and, (5) the current work experience of employees with similar jobs. It is important to note that, while courts consider the amount of time spent on a function, the first two factors are considered more important in determining what constitutes an essential job function.
At trial, the general manager relied heavily on the fact that he drove a delivery truck less than 50 times over a two year period. He asserted such an infrequent job requirement could not be considered an essential job function under the ADA and that the company inappropriately terminated him because he could perform all of the other functions of his employment. He also noted his excellent performance record and ability to perform the other aspects of his job effectively.
The trial court, however, placed great weight on the testimony of supervisors from the company. These supervisors testified other general managers drive trucks to deliver product and train new employees, that having general managers without this ability would cause the company to deliver less product, and that changing the job requirements of its general managers would force the company to restructure its training program. Additionally, the court favored heavily the detailed job requirements set forth in the company’s job description for general managers and “Conditional Offer of Employment.” Because the court could not conclude the employee was qualified to perform the essential functions of his position (i.e., obtaining appropriate DOT and medical certification), it declined to conclude the company had violated the ADA.
It is vitally important, as this case demonstrates, for employers to maintain accurate and detailed job descriptions for all positions within the company. These job descriptions should detail all potential functions an employee will be asked to perform, whether it be on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even less frequent basis. In addition, employers should take care to update their job descriptions on a regular basis to add or remove tasks as necessary.
Read the case here.