Monday, January 13, 2014

6th Circuit Reverses Grant of Summary Judgment in ADA Case, Highlights Importance of Job Descriptions

In a case that reminds me of a recent high-profile case involving an amputee who was kicked out of the FBI's training academy, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed summary judgment in a disability discrimination case filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) involving an excavator operator who was fired after his left leg was amputated after being involved in a motorcycle accident.

After the plaintiff, Wayne Henschel, lost his leg, his employer terminated his employment after they considered him unable to be an excavator operator anymore and claimed they did not have another position to employ him in.  Henschel presumably would have been able to return to work but the employer required him to seek a medical waiver from the Michigan Traffic Safety Division who only cleared him to perform work on automatic transmission vehicles.

What doomed the employer is that they told Henschel that he was being terminated because of his inability to transport the excavator to job sites.  

In an employment discrimination case under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that: 

1) he is an individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA; 

2) he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation; and 
3) he suffered an adverse employment decision because of his disability. 

Gilday v. Mecosta Cnty., 124 F.3d 760, 762 (6th Cir. 1997); 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). The employer claimed that Henschel’s claim fails at the second prong because Henschel is not qualified for employment, with or without reasonable accommodations.   When Henschel lost at the district court level, they held that (1) transporting the excavator to job sites was an essential function of the excavator operator position; (2) Henschel was unable to haul the excavator; and (3) reassigning Henschel to a year-round truck driver position (in an automatic transmission truck) was not a reasonable accommodation because another driver would have to be displaced.

The regulations accompanying the ADA provide seven non-exclusive factors for determining whether a particular function is essential:

(i) The employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential;
(ii) Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job;
(iii) The amount of time spent on the job performing the function;
(iv) The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function;
(v) The terms of a collective bargaining agreement; (vi) The experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or (vii) The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.

29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3).  The job description, as provided by the employer, doomed the employer because the job description did not prove to the court that transporting/hauling the excavator was an essential function of the job.  Thus, employers live and die by job descriptions when it comes to the "essential functions" prong in disability discrimination claims. 

The case is Henschel v. Claire Co. Rd. Comm., 6th Cir. No. 13-1528 (Dec. 13, 2013).

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