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Long-Term Shift of Essential Job Functions May Remove Them as Mandatory Qualifications

    Client Alerts
  • December 06, 2016

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only requires employers to provide accommodations that allow the disabled employee or applicant to perform the essential functions of the job. The employer is not required to shift or remove essential job functions whether or not such accommodation would be reasonable. However, a new, unpublished decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals warns employers that by voluntarily relieving an employee of the need to perform essential job functions, it may eventually lose its ability to later disqualify the employee from work due to inability to carry out those tasks.

In Camp v. Bi-Lo, LLC, the plaintiff worked as a grocery clerk for the defendant for 38 years. Due to childhood scoliosis, he could not lift more than 35 pounds. Over the years of his employment, he was relieved of such lifting, which was shifted to other employees. When a new manager assumed supervision of the plaintiff, he discovered this limitation, and referred him to corporate human resources for an evaluation of his ability to safely perform the job. Human resources concluded that the plaintiff could not perform the essential job functions due to the lifting restriction, basing its conclusion on a job description prepared 30 years after he began working for the company.

On appeal in a 2-1 decision, the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of the ADA claim, remanding the suit for trial on the question of whether lifting heavier weights is really an essential function of the position. The court concluded that the fact that the plaintiff had been relieved of such lifting duties for so many years created a factual question over whether the lifting requirement truly was an essential job function.

Employers frequently shift essential job functions with the intent of allowing an employee to transition back to work from an injury or illness. By definition, light duty jobs involve reassignment of essential job functions. However as illustrated by this decision, long term removal of such essential functions may eliminate the employer’s ability to later use the employee’s inability to perform them as grounds for ending employment. Any light duty program should be temporary in nature. When that time expires, light duty should end, and the decision to reinstate the employee should be based on whether he or she is capable of performing all essential functions of the job at that time, with or without reasonable accommodation.