Benefits & Compensation News

Can a rare job duty be ‘essential’ under ADA?

If an employee can go nine months without performing a specific job duty, can that duty really be considered an “essential function” of his or her job, under the ADA? A recent court’s answer is likely to surprise many employers.

The natural response bound to pop into many of your heads is “no,” of course it’s not an essential function of the person’s job — not if they can go the vast majority of the year without performing it.

Not so fast, said a district court — and later an appeals court. If the job duty is outlined as an essential function in the employee’s written job description — or the ability to perform the duty is a requirement to obtain a job — it absolutely can be an essential function of his or her job.

General manager fired

Here’s what brought the question before the courts:

Jeff Knutson was a general manager for Schwan’s Home Service, a home grocery delivery company.

Schwan’s job description for a manager stated that managers must be certified by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) to drive a delivery truck.

Knutson was DOT-certified, until he suffered an eye injury in 2008 that permanently impaired his vision. A doctor then refused to re-certify him for the DOT requirement.

At that point Schwan’s placed Knutson on a 30-day leave of absence to either:

  • find a doc who would re-certify him, or
  • obtain a job within the company that didn’t require the DOT certification.

Knutson failed to do either, and the company fired him.

Drove less than 50 miles a year

Knutson then sued Schwan’s, claiming the company had violated the ADA by refusing to provide him with a reasonable accommodation that would allow him to return to his job with his disability (vision impairment).

The basis for his argument was that driving wasn’t an essential part of his job. The two reasons he gave to back up his argument were that:

  • he drove fewer than 50 miles a year, and
  • over the nine months following his eye injury, he’d been able to perform his job while avoiding the need to drive a truck.

One could agree with his logic, but the courts didn’t. In a pair of decisions that should please employers, both courts deferred to Schwan’s detailed, written job description of what a general manager must be able to do.

It’s important to note that without that documentation, Schwan’s may not have had much of a leg to stand on. So this is another example that nothing can protect a company in court like a solid foundation of documentation to support employment decisions.

Also helping Schwan’s case was the fact that the court found it had already provided Knutson with at least one reasonable accommodation — 30 days worth of leave to obtain a DOT-certification or another job within the company.

Cite: Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc.

(In another recent ADA case with surprising implications for employers, a court ruled that in certain circumstances arriving on time for a job isn’t necessarily an essential part of an employee’s job.)

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