United States: Sixth Circuit Rejects Argument That Full-Time Job Requires Full-Time Hours In ADA Failure To Accommodate Case

Last Updated: August 8 2018
Article by Michael A. Chichester, Jr. and Jaclyn R. Giffen

Holding that full-time presence at the workplace is not always an essential job function, on July 17, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) failure to accommodate case. The decision in Hostettler v. College of Wooster1 undermines the deference often afforded to employers in determining whether a particular function is an "essential" job function. Moreover, it appears to eliminate—at least within the Sixth Circuit—the argument that an accommodation permitting an employee to work less than full-time hours in a full-time position is per se unreasonable.

Background

The College of Wooster hired Plaintiff Heidi Hostettler as a HR Generalist in its Human Resource Department. At the time of her hire, Hostettler was pregnant and disclosed her pregnancy and plans for maternity leave to Wooster. Wooster provided Hostettler with 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) pursuant to the college's policy, though she did not meet eligibility requirements. Following her leave, Hostettler was scheduled to return to work in late April. As she approached the end of her leave, Hostettler informed Wooster she was experiencing severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. She  submitted documentation confirming her diagnosis and her need for additional leave time. That request was granted by Wooster, along with a reduced work schedule accommodation upon her return to work. Hostettler's treater advised that she needed to work part-time for the "foreseeable future" and likely for the next two-six months. Hostettler had no other restrictions.

The parties disagreed over what occurred during the two months between Hostettler's return to work in May and her termination in July. Hostettler contended she handled all of her job duties without issue. Wooster countered that Hostettler did not complete all of her critical job functions and that the HR Department was severely understaffed due to her reduced schedule. Wooster argued that the situation was compounded due to another employee's leave of absence and the fact that the Department was preparing for a time-intensive benefits project. Hostettler's supervisor testified that the situation was overwhelming and Hostettler's absence was putting a strain on the entire Department.

Hostettler and her supervisor had four meetings after she returned to work and before her termination. Hostettler claimed that during the meetings she received positive feedback and there was no mention of her return to work full-time, although she offered to extend her part-time schedule to work until 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. in preparation for returning to a full-time schedule. Wooster claims that, during each of those meetings, Hostettler's supervisor advised her that she needed to return to work full-time.

In mid-July, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification stating she "might" be able to return to full-time employment at the beginning of September. Hostettler alleged she advised her supervisor again that she was willing to work extended hours, from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., but her supervisor never responded. The day after submitting her updated documentation, Wooster terminated Hostettler. The termination decision was premised on Hostettler's medical certification, which required that she continue to work part-time in conflict with Wooster's assertion that the HR Generalist position was a full-time job.

Hostettler filed suit alleging violations of the ADA, the FMLA, and Chapter 4112 of the Ohio Revised Code. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Wooster on all counts. Regarding Hostettler's ADA failure to accommodate claim, the trial court concluded that she failed to establish a prima facie case because she could not meet an essential function of the position—working 40 hours per week—and was not otherwise qualified for the job.

The Sixth Circuit's Opinion

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed on all claims. The Court found that Hostettler's ADA claim should be analyzed under the direct method of proof and not the familiar burden shifting framework. In doing so, the Court noted that the direct test was the proper analysis when an employer rescinds an already granted accommodation, finding that in such circumstances it is clear that the disability was at least a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.

Applying the direct test, the Court viewed whether Hostettler was "otherwise qualified" for her HR Generalist position as the crux of the case. Here, the Court concluded that whether Hostettler could complete the essential functions of her position on a modified schedule was a question of fact for a jury to decide. In reaching this outcome, the Court addressed its prior holdings, particularly the decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc), that "'[r]egular, in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs." Distinguishing Ford, the Court noted that the analysis regarding whether a job function is truly essential is "highly fact specific" and courts must consider all the evidence such as the amount of time spent on the job function, the employer's judgment, written job descriptions, and consequences for not performing the job function. However, the Court cautioned that the employer's judgment "is not the end-all—especially when an employee puts forth competing evidence." Ultimately, the Court found that "full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is."

The Court rejected the district court's analysis, which relied on the written job description, the fact that Hostettler worked 40 hours prior to her leave, and Hostettler's own statements that she wanted to work full-time, finding these factors did not necessitate finding that full-time hours was an essential job function as a matter of law. Wooster presented evidence that the HR Department was suffering based on Hostettler's part-time schedule, but Hostettler set forth enough evidence to create an issue of fact.3 Specifically, the Sixth Circuit relied on Hostettler's testimony that she believed she completed her "core" job functions on a modified schedule and on an affidavit submitted by another HR employee corroborating that Hostettler was handling all of her job functions satisfactorily. The Court also relied on Hostettler's performance review, administered to her after she returned from leave and while she was working a reduced schedule, which was positive overall and neither addressed any issues relating to her work schedule nor stated that she needed to work full-time.

At the heart of its decision, the Sixth Circuit held that "on its own . . . full-time presence at work is not an essential function" and "an employer must tie time-and-presence requirements to some other job requirement." The Court found that "[a]n employer cannot deny a modified work schedule as unreasonable unless the employer can show why the employee is needed on a full-time schedule; merely stating that anything less than full-time employment is per se unreasonable will not relieve an employer of its ADA requirements."

The Significance of this Case

Under the ADA, when an employee requests a reduced schedule as an accommodation, an employer must conduct a detailed analysis to determine whether the requested accommodation would be reasonable or whether it would eliminate an essential job function. In light of Hostettler, it is even more important for an employer to critically assess whether the function at issue truly is "essential." Merely including the function on a job description likely will not pass muster, nor will general testimony from management stating the job requires full-time presence. Also, in determining whether a requested accommodation is unreasonable because it eliminates an essential job function, employers should strive to contemporaneously document and explain that position, as courts presumably will require affirmative proof that the function is in fact "essential." As highlighted by this decision, accommodations in the form of extended leaves of absence or reduced work schedules routinely present compliance and administrative challenges requiring careful handling.

Footnotes

1 Hostettler v. College of Wooster, __ F.3d __, 2018 WL 3432244 (6th Cir. July 17, 2018).

2 The Sixth Circuit's precedent on the deference afforded an employer's judgment as to the essential functions is mixed. See Ford, 782 F.3d at 761-62 ("Essential functions generally are those the employer's 'judgment' and 'written [job] description' prior to litigation deem essential.") (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8)); but see Rorrer v. City of Stow, 743 F.3d 1025, 1039-40 (6th Cir. 2014) (holding that whether a job function is "essential" is typically not suitable for summary judgment, and that at the summary judgment stage, an employer's judgment will not be dispositive where evidence on whether the function is "essential" is mixed).

3 In fact, in dicta the Court suggested that but for Wooster's competing argument, Hostettler had submitted nearly enough evidence to render summary judgment in her favor.

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.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Michael A. Chichester, Jr.
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions