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Case offers significant insights into “essential job functions” under ADA

A federal appeals court decision provides some significant insight into what courts may consider to be “essential functions” and the importance of detailed job descriptions, in a case that arose under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Richardson v. Friendly Ice Cream Corporation.

In this case, plaintiff Katherine Richardson alleged that Friendly’s violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her shoulder impingement injury, which occurred while she was grilling in the kitchen and scooping ice cream. While she was granted a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to undergo surgery, apparently, she never fully recovered from the injury, limiting her ability to do some manual tasks. When her leave expired, she was incapable of returning to work and was terminated.

The district court tossed the case out, ruling in favor of the restaurant, because Richardson was not a "qualified disabled individual" since she was unable to perform the essential functions of the job. Even though Richardson was in a management position, she was expected to chip in and help with everything from doing the fries to cleaning up.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit agreed and affirmed the district court's award of summary judgment in favor of Friendly's on the basis that Richardson was not qualified for her position, with or without an accommodation, because "an assistant manager had to be capable of performing a broad range of manual tasks." Because she was limited in her ability to do these jobs, as the court stated, “Even assuming it is true Richardson’s ‘primary function’ was to oversee restaurant operations, the point does not advance Richardson’s case. The essential functions of the position are not limited to the ‘primary functions’ of the position.”

The ruling also dealt with the issue of staff size, "functions that might not be considered essential if there were a larger staff may become essential because the staff size is small compared to the volume of work that has to be done." The court quoted an EEOC guideline, "If an employer has a relatively small number of available employees for the volume of work to be performed, it may be necessary that each employee perform a multitude of different functions. Therefore, the performance of those functions by each employee becomes more critical and the options for organizing the work become more limited."

The court also stated that, “The law does not require an employer to accommodate a disability by foregoing an essential function of the position or by reallocating essential functions to make other workers’ jobs more onerous.”

Richardson also argued that Friendly’s violated the ADA by refusing to engage in an interactive process to determine whether any reasonable accommodations were available. This argument failed too because Richardson was not able to identify any such accommodation that would qualify. The two accommodations she did identify — performing tasks in a modified manner and delegating tasks to others — were inadequate to enable her to perform a sufficiently broad range of manual tasks.

Lesson learned: This is an insightful case, which offers helpful hints to employers about job descriptions and accommodations. View the full case here:

A good resource for free job descriptions that include physical requirements is

Alcoholism no excuse for poor attendance

Managers must often deal with an employee who is chronically absent, and claims that a disability is the cause of the absenteeism. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York, and Vermont) addressed this issue with regard to an alcoholic employee. The Court held that the employee’s repeated absence from work meant that he was not qualified for the job, and that his termination had no relation to his FMLA-protected leave.

Facts of the Case: In Vandenbroek v. PSEG Power, the company fired a boiler utility operator after he violated the employer’s no-call/no show policy. His termination came shortly after he had taken FMLA-protected leave, allegedly to deal with his alcoholism. The employee sued the company, claiming that he was terminated because of a disability (alcoholism) and for taking medical leave to treat the condition.

The Court’s Ruling: The Court upheld the district court finding that the employee was terminated for violating the employer’s attendance policy, and not because of his disability or for taking FMLA-protected leave. The Court, noting that alcoholism could constitute a disability because the employee was substantially limited in his ability to work, found that the employee failed to adduce sufficient evidence to make out a prima facie case under the ADA. To do so, he would have had to show that he was “qualified” to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. “Essential functions” are duties that are fundamental to the job in question. In this case, the Court determined that reliable attendance at scheduled shifts was an essential function of a boiler utility operator. The employee had to be present at the plant to monitor the boiler, respond to any alarms, handle any power outage, or (if needed) respond to an explosion. With regard to the employee’s FMLA claim, the employee failed to show that he was terminated for taking FMLA-protected leave. There was no evidence of pretext; rather, the evidence showed that his violation of the no-call/no show policy led to his termination.

Lesson learned: Most employers would agree that reliable attendance is an essential function of all jobs. While the Vandenbroek case provides a clear example of this principle, other instances might not be so clear. When alcoholism or another disability causes an attendance problem, employers must be able to show that regular and reliable attendance is an essential function for the specific position. One way of doing this is to have clear and detailed written job descriptions that describe the essential functions of the position, including regular and reliable attendance.

From HR That Works! Article courtesy of Worklaw® Network firm Shawe Rosenthal.

Side effects of medication do not give rise to disability under ADA

The Federal Third Circuit Court had held that limitations on life activities caused solely by the side effects of medication do not give rise to a disability claim under the ADA. In Sulima v. Tobyhana Army Depot, the plaintiff claimed that he was forced to accept a voluntary layoff because his employer did not accommodate the side effects of medications he was taking to treat obesity and sleep apnea. The district court ruled that medication side effects might, under certain conditions, constitute a disabling condition under the ADA, but that the side effects experienced by the plaintiff did not rise to that level. The Circuit Court agreed. The plaintiff, who was morbidly obese and suffered from sleep apnea, was taking several medications related to those issues at the time of his layoff. The medication caused the plaintiff to need to use the restroom frequently for extended periods. The employer decided to transfer him, but had no other work available at the time. The plaintiff accepted the voluntary layoff in advance of layoffs scheduled for the following month. He did not present any evidence that his obesity or sleep apnea directly and substantially limited a life activity, and instead focused on the side effects of the medication. To prevail under this theory the plaintiff needed to show that: (1) the treatment is required “in the prudent opinion of the medical profession;” (2) the treatment is not just an “attractive option;” and (3) that the treatment is not required solely in anticipation of an impairment resulting from the plaintiff’s voluntary choices. The plaintiff could not meet this test because his doctor had discontinued the medications, thus refuting part (1) of the test that the treatment be required “in the prudent opinion of the medical profession.”

From HR That Works! Article courtesy of Worklaw® Network firm Shawe Rosenthal.