Employer Decides Whether Job Function Is ‘Essential’ Under ADA

By Maria Greco Danaher Feb 1, 2017
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The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that creates useful instruction for those who want to further understand the concept of "essential functions" of a position in cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court made it clear that an employer sets the essential functions of a position based on its business needs.

Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability is someone who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that the individual holds or desires. To support an ADA claim, a person must show that he or she can either perform the essential functions without assistance or can perform those functions with some reasonable accommodation. An individual who cannot make this initial showing is not qualified for protection under the ADA.

A court's first step in an ADA lawsuit is to determine the essential functions of the job—the fundamental job duties of the position. If the plaintiff is unable to perform those functions on his or her own or with a reasonable accommodation, the lawsuit cannot go forward.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: Disability Accommodations: Essential Functions: Must an employer accommodate an employee who cannot perform their essential job functions?]

Katrina Bagwell had sued her employer, Morgan County, Ala., challenging her termination. She claimed that her ADA claim was wrongly dismissed by a trial court, and contended that the park groundskeeper position she had held involved far fewer essential functions than were listed in the job description. She argued that because some functions were "infrequently performed"—a fact not disputed by the county—they could not have been essential.

The 11th Circuit disagreed, stating that the "nature of the groundskeeper position required the employee's duties to shift based on [the park's] specific needs." Because Bagwell suffers from a mobility impairment exacerbated by traversing uneven and wet surfaces, walking, and standing for long periods, she could not undertake those functions during a flare-up of her condition. Walking and standing for long periods made her knees swell. Her job required picking up trash and tree limbs, traversing the park daily, and cleaning park bathrooms regularly. Therefore, her periodic inability to undertake those functions kept her from being a qualified individual protected under the ADA.

Bagwell v. Morgan County Commission, 11th Cir., No. 15-15274 (Jan. 18, 2017).

Professional Pointer: While an analysis of the essential functions of a particular job must be done on a case-by-case basis, this opinion indicates that it is the employer's view of a job's responsibilities that carry the strongest significance. According to this court, although an employer may be required to restructure a particular job by altering or eliminating marginal functions, "an employer is not required to transform a position into another one by eliminating essential functions."

Maria Greco Danaher is an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh.

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