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Seldom Practiced Job Functions Can Be Essential under ADA

    Client Alerts
  • September 18, 2009

In order to be a qualified protected person under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the job.  Essential functions are typically defined as those core functions that constitute the reason why the job exists in the first place.  Last week, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed whether job functions that are rarely if ever used can qualify as essential.

In Hennagir v. Utah Dept. of Corrections, the plaintiff was a Physicians’ Assistant in a prison.  The prison added safety training for staff working with inmates, and the plaintiff was unable to complete this training due to physical impairments.  She filed an ADA lawsuit after being removed from her job for inability to complete the safety training.  In her suit, the plaintiff alleged that she was capably performing her job before the personal safety requirements were added, and should have been grandfathered from the new requirements.

In response, the prison system demonstrated that similar staff had been attacked by inmates, and that concerns over these attacks led it to change the essential function requirements of the plaintiff’s job.  The Tenth Circuit agreed, affirming summary judgment for the employer.  The court deferred to the employer’s characterization of the dangers involved in working with the inmate population.  Failure to meet self-defense requirements placed the employees in danger and exposed the prison system to possible financial liability.

Even if the chances of an inmate attack were remote, if such circumstance arose, the employee’s need to defend herself was an essential job function.  While frequency of performance is an important factor in determining essential functions, courts must also look at the consequences of not being able to perform infrequent job duties.  In this case, the employer’s need to secure the safety of its employees and facilities made the new physical requirements of the job essential functions.