Do you have job descriptions for your employees? Do your job descriptions list the “essential functions” for each job? If not, your chances of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) are greater than they need to be.
To prevail on a claim of disability discrimination, an employee must prove that they were “disabled” and that they were a “qualified” individual with a disability. A “qualified” individual can perform the essential functions of their job, with or without reasonable accommodation. Job descriptions are vital because they help a court to determine the essential functions of a job.
Whether a job function is “essential” is determined on a case-by-case basis. Even so, one of the factors that a court considers is the employer’s judgment of whether a particular function is essential. And, a comprehensive job description will tell a judge exactly which functions the employer considers to be essential.
But, a job description can be a double-edged sword. If your job description fails to list a function as “essential,” it will be difficult to convince a court otherwise. One employer learned that lesson in Lewis v. City of Union City, 877 F.3d 1000 (11th Cir. 2017). In Lewis, a police department claimed that officer must be trained on, and suffer a shock from, taser guns. Lewis refused because of a heart condition, and the department terminated her employment. The department then tried to argue that taking a shock from a taser was an “essential function” of the job, but the job description for police officer made no reference to the taser shock. The Eleventh Circuit then found that there were genuine issues on whether the taser shock was an essential function of the job.
The lack of reference to taser shock in the job description also defeated the department’s “direct threat” defense. The department argued that the officer was a direct threat to herself, because her presence near tasers in the workplace posed a significant risk of harm to her health. The Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument, however, because a “direct threat” can only be determined by examining “essential functions.” And, again, the taser shock was missing from the “essential functions.”
In short, job descriptions are vital part of any defense to an ADA claim. As always, proceed carefully if you are going to take any action based upon the health of any employee.