United States: The Ability To Perform A Rare Job Task Can Be "Essential"

Court rulings continue to shape the contours of employers' duty pursuant to the ADA to accommodate employees' limitations. Very recently, one of the federal appellate courts issued a pro-employer ADA ruling that reinforced the fundamental notion that a person is not "qualified" if he/she cannot perform an "essential" function of the job (even with a reasonable accommodation), and developed the less-familiar notion that required job tasks can indeed be "essential" even if they are not routinely performed. The case, Knutson v. Schwan's Home Service, Inc. (8th Cir.), provides several practical ADA teachings that are listed at the end of this article.The employer, Schwan's, delivers frozen food to customers through a distribution system of thousands of delivery trucks operating out of hundreds of depots across the United States. Schwan's employed the plaintiff, Jeff Knutson, as a general manager of one of its depots. The job description stated that a manager must meet federal Department of Transportation requirements to be eligible to drive a delivery truck.

Initially, Mr. Knutson was DOT-qualified, but he suffered an eye injury in March 2008 that left him vision-impaired. In December 2008, a doctor refused to certify Mr. Knutson for the DOT qualification. The employer placed Mr. Knutson on a 30-day leave of absence to obtain either a medical certification or another job in the company that did not require DOT qualification. He failed to do either, and the company fired him. Mr. Knutson sued, alleging the employer violated the ADA by firing him because of a disability (vision impairment) and failing to reasonably accommodate him.

The district and appellate courts agreed that the employee's ADA claim must be dismissed because he was not a qualified individual by virtue of the fact that he could not perform an essential function of the job — the periodic need to drive a delivery truck. The employee argued that driving was not "essential" to his job as manager, pointing out that he performed his job well for nine months after his eye injury while avoiding the need to drive a truck. But the courts deferred to the employer's judgment about what was an essential function and concluded that, as stated on the job description, driving was indeed an essential function of the manager position because company managers did drive a delivery truck "from time to time." Because the employee could not perform that function (as he could not be DOT-qualified with his vision impairment), he was not a "qualified individual" within the meaning of the ADA and subject to the statute's protections. Plus, the company had provided a sufficient accommodation by granting the employee a 30-day leave opportunity to get medically certified or locate some other available job in the company for which he was qualified.

Employers' takeaways from the Knutson case:

  • Employers' documented judgment about an essential job function can influence a court in an ADA case.
  • Even job duties that are rarely, if ever, performed can be "essential functions" in some circumstances if the employee may be required to perform them from time to time.
  • Take care in drafting job descriptions and perhaps offer letters, and updating both of these periodically, to ensure you have listed all essential functions, including tasks that may need to be performed from time to time even if not routinely performed.
  • Generally, an employer does not have to remove or ignore an essential function of a job in order to accommodate an employee who cannot perform that function due to a disability.
  • Similarly, an employer generally does not have to reassign other employees to assist one employee to perform his essential duties.
  • Employers need only provide some accommodation that is reasonable; not necessarily provide the particular accommodation preferred or requested by the employee.

ADA accommodation issues are highly fact-specific, and the case law differs somewhat across the country. It is important to consult with employment counsel when making tough decisions like terminations of a disabled employee because extra care and guidance on the front end may help you minimize liability exposure.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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