Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and its Ohio counterpart, an employee with a disability is protected from discrimination, if he or she can perform the “essential functions” of the job. A recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sheds light on how to determine if a job function is “essential” when an employee brings a disability discrimination claim.
Wayne Henschel was working for the Clare County, Michigan Road Commission as an excavator operator when he lost his leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident. Although he returned to work, the State of Michigan would no longer allow him to drive a manual transmission vehicle. As a result, he could no longer drive the semi-truck used to haul the excavator from site to site when a project ended. Citing that inability, the employer fired Henschel. It claimed that hauling the excavator was an essential job function, and since he could not do it, he was not protected from disability discrimination under the ADA.
Essential job functions are those that would “fundamentally alter” the job if the employee no longer performed them. In disability discrimination cases where an employee can perform certain job functions, but not others, the outcome often depends on whether the ones the employee cannot perform are essential to the job. To determine whether a job function is essential under the ADA, courts start with a list of seven factors:
(1) the employer’s judgment;
(2) written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job;
(3) the amount of time spent performing the function;
(4) the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function;
(5) the terms of any collective bargaining agreement;
(6) the experience of past employees holding the job; and
(7) the experience of current employees holding the job.
This list is non-exclusive, and courts will balance these factors along with any other relevant factors to decide whether a job function is essential.
In Henschel, the Sixth Circuit looked at these factors and held that driving the manual semi-truck was not an essential job function. The Court found significant that other employees often drove the semi-truck. In fact, hauling the excavator was listed in a different employee’s job description, not Henschel’s. The Court also noted that ninety percent of the time, the excavator stayed at a job site. In essence, Henschel’s job was to operate the excavator, not to move it from one place to another. The Court of Appeals therefore sent the disability discrimination case back to the District Court for further proceedings.
Although Henschel was not from Ohio, the law here is the same: employees with a disability who can perform the “essential functions” of their jobs (either with or without a reasonable accommodation) are protected from discrimination in the workplace. Determining whether a job function is essential is just one of many complicated questions that arise in disability discrimination cases. For that reason, Ohio employees with a disability should consult with an experienced employment law attorney to best protect their rights in the workplace.