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In a Disability Claim, is a Court Bound by a Job Description’s Identification of an Essential Function?

An employee worked for the employer for 28 years.  Initially he worked as a bus driver which required him to possess a commercial driver's license (CDL), and he did so. He was later promoted to another position, which did not involve driving responsibilities or require a CDL. The employee developed insulin-dependent diabetes and had to relinquish his CDL. The employee was then transferred to another position where the possession of a CDL was listed in the job description, but the employer granted the employee an accommodation (i.e., an exemption) whereby he could maintain the job without re-obtaining a CDL. Several years later, the employee was promoted to a supervisory position, which the possession of a CDL was also listed in the job description. Although the employee did not obtain an explicit waiver of the CDL requirement for this new position, his supervisors were aware of his inability to obtain a CDL when they promoted him.

Eventually the employee was terminated and his termination notice listed his inability to “obtain CDL as required in job description” as the reason for his firing. The employee sued his employer, alleging among other things, that it failed to accommodate his diabetes-related disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The district court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that a genuine factual issue existed as to whether driving a bus while possessing a CDL was an essential function for the employee. A jury trial found for the employee on the ADA claim and the employer appealed.  Brown v. Smith, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 11772 (7th Cir. June 28, 2016).

In general, a “qualified individual” under the ADA is someone with a disability, who with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. Essential functions, in turn, are fundamental job duties of a position that an individual with a disability is actually required to perform. Courts evaluate whether a function is “essential” on a case-by-case basis, considering several factors. The ADA directs courts to consider the employer’s judgment as to what functions of a job are essential, such as the employer’s written description for the job.

The Appellate Court noted that there was ample evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that having a CDL was not an essential function in this case. Although the employee’s job description listed possession of a CDL as a job requirement, the Appellate Court recognized that the content of a job description is merely one of several factors courts consider when determining whether a function is essential.

Here, the employee’s manager testified that he knew the employee did not have a CDL when the employee was promoted to a supervisory position and that driving buses was not a key responsibility for supervisors because other individuals with CDLs were typically available to drive buses when necessary.

Also, the employee testified he performed the duties of the supervisory position for four years without ever needing to drive a bus. The manager testified he did not think that driving buses was a key responsibility for supervisors because there were typically people with CDLs available to drive and that during his own 20-year tenure in the employee’s supervisory position, only once did an emergency arise in which he drove a bus.

Also, two witnesses testified that replacement drivers could generally be secured within 10 minutes, which allowed the supervisory position in question to focus on ensuring that other bus drivers were operating adequately. So there was adequate evidence to support the jury's conclusion that having a CDL was not an essential job function for the supervisor in question.

This case reminds employers that a court will evaluate whether a function is “essential” to a position by looking at the job description; however, the job description may not be controlling if the employer’s actual practice is different than the job description.


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