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Published: 2008-03-26

Seldom Performed Job Duties Can Be Essentional Functions Under the ADA

In two recent cases, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals provided further guidance to employers regarding the practical application of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") to employees who are unable to perform all of the essential functions of a particular job.

In Martin v. Kansas, Martin, a former state corrections officer with chronic arthritis, alleged that the Kansas Department of Corrections violated the ADA by (1) refusing to modify his job position; and (2) asking employees to identify the nature and severity of any disability that might impact their ability to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Martin had been terminated by the Kansas Department of Corrections because although he successfully performed many of his duties he was unable to perform several of the duties of a corrections officer, including those duties involving physical restraint, contact with inmates, and responding to emergencies. Martin argued that because the tower duty assignment that he had performed the past three years had never actually called for the duties he could not perform, he was qualified for the corrections officer position.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Martin, noting that an employer is entitled to create job positions that require employees to perform a multitude of tasks in a wide range of environments. Even if the employee regularly performs only a few of those tasks, the employer may nevertheless consider all of the tasks in determining whether the employee is qualified for purposes of the ADA. Because Martin could not perform the duties involving physical restraint, contact with inmates and responding to emergencies, even though he had not been required to perform those duties for over three years, he was not "qualified" for the corrections officer position.

With respect to Martin's allegation of impermissible medical inquiries, the court explained that post-employment medical inquiries are not prohibited by the ADA if the inquiries are "job related and consistent with job necessity." In this case, the Kansas Department of Correction's medical inquiry to verify "an employee's ability to perform the essential functions of his job or to begin the process of identifying appropriate and necessary reasonable accommodations" met that test.

As in Martin, in Anderson v. Coors Brewing Co., the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an employee's argument that the essential functions of a job are limited to the particular assignment of the employee, rather than the broader duties of the position for which the employee was hired. Anderson had been hired as a temporary production operator ("TPO"). This position involved numerous tasks, including "can sorter." Although Anderson spent the majority of her time as a "can sorter," the court determined this did not mean that Coors had "narrowed" the job description from TPO to "can sorter," and Coors properly considered the essential functions of the "broader TPO position" in determining whether Anderson was a qualified individual under the ADA. Because Anderson was unable to perform some of the other functions, she was not qualified as a TPO.

These cases highlight the importance of written job descriptions that identify all of the essential functions of a position, as well as written policies that address post-employment medical inquiries and articulate the business necessity for the inquiry. Presented with such written descriptions and policies, courts frequently defer to the employer's determination regarding essential functions and business necessity.