Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Jan 22, 2014

Employer failed to consider accommodations under the ADA

Disability 

An employer’s hasty decision that an employee with a disability could not perform the “essential functions of the job” ended up backfiring in an expensive way. That was the result of a federal district court’s ruling, which allowed the employee’s case to proceed to trial.

An employer’s hasty decision that an employee with a disability could not perform the “essential functions of the job” ended up backfiring in an expensive way. That was the result of a federal district court’s ruling, which allowed the employee’s case to proceed to trial.

One of the employee’s main tasks was to regularly lift boxes weighing up to 55 pounds and move them from one point to another to prepare them for shipping. The employee had received a medical restriction prohibiting the lifting of heavy objects and was released only for restricted duty. The employer did not have an open position within her lifting restrictions and terminated her employment. The court ruled that a jury could find that physically lifting the boxes was not an essential function of the job. A jury could conclude that the essential function was just moving them from one point to another—and it was possible that a pneumatic lift or other device could enable the employee to accomplish the task. In reaching its determination, the court noted that the company failed to engage in the interactive process with the employee. Even assuming that the lifting of the boxes was an essential function of the job, the employer still would have been required to explore accommodations to assist the employee with the task of lifting the boxes (Dunlap v. Liberty Natural Products, Inc., D Or, Nov. 2013).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says an employer can’t discriminate against an employee with a disability so long as the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. So, when an employee has a disability, the first step is to determine whether the disability impacts the performance of an “essential” job function. Not every task performed by the employee in a particular position constitutes an essential function. If the disability affects a non-essential function, then the employee can’t be required to perform the task. Even when an essential function is involved, you can’t stop there. The ADA requires the employer to explore whether the job can be performed with a reasonable accommodation; this process of exploration is known as the “interactive process.”  The accommodation can include such things as providing assistive equipment or making ergonomic changes.  It should be noted that the ADA does not require employers to make an accommodation that would impose an “undue hardship” or pose a direct threat to health or safety.

Tips: This case illustrates the importance of fully engaging in the interactive process to analyze job functions and explore accommodations. Check out the Vigilant Model Forms, “Job Analysis” (873) and “ADA: Analysis of the Individual’s Ability,” (989), and “ADA: Reasonable Accommodations and the Interactive Process” (1078) for more information. You should also consider contacting your Vigilant staff representative with any questions on specific employee situations.

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