When a current employee develops a disabling medical condition, employers are frequently faced with Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation requests that would fundamentally alter the way that the job has been performed. For example, a manufacturing employee whose position includes rotation through various jobs on the production line asks to be permanently excused from working at one or more of those stations. As demonstrated in a recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals, federal courts generally have not required employers to provide such accommodations that would burden co-workers with a greater share of undesirable duties.
In Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC, the plaintiff was an assistant manager for a Burger King franchisee who was the victim of an armed robbery while making a bank deposit. As a result, he developed depression and PTSD, and he requested a fixed schedule to help deal with his medical conditions. He resigned after the employer declined to make an exception from its requirement that managers work rotating shifts. The plaintiff sued under the ADA, alleging failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.
The First Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim. The court deferred to the employer’s judgment about the job’s essential functions, as demonstrated by a prior written job description as well as advertising and other notices to applicants about the job’s shift requirements. In this case, allowing the plaintiff to work a fixed schedule would unfairly burden the other managers with a greater number of undesirable shifts. While the court did not characterize this burden as an undue hardship, it considered this effect as evidence that shift rotation was an essential job function.
This decision is consistent with other federal opinions that characterize an employee’s flexibility to work different jobs at different times as essential job functions. While employers may agree – temporarily or otherwise – to grant such restrictions to allow an employee to return to their previous duties, the ADA will not require reassignment of such essential duties as a permanent accommodation.