Federal Court Defers To Employer's Assessment of Essential Job Functions in ADA Case

As many employers have recognized, some employees with impairments that may or may not qualify as "disabilities" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seek to use their medical status to eliminate undesirable tasks or obtain special treatment, often at a significant cost to their employers and inconvenience to their fellow employees. In Laurin v. The Providence Hospital, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Boston, struck a blow for employers by ruling that the hospital was not required to create a special, non-rotating position as an accommodation for a disabled staff nurse. In its July 1998 decision, the First Circuit deferred to the hospital-employer's judgment in determining that shift-rotation was an "essential job function" of non-senior maternity ward nurses, and that the employee's requested accommodation was unreasonable.

Laurin had been employed with the hospital in its 24-hour maternity unit. In order to adequately staff its less desirable evening and night shifts, the hospital required all of its non-senior staff nurses to work rotating shifts. After four years on the job, Laurin began to experience health problems, including two episodes of seizures, and consulted a neurologist.

Laurin's neurologist diagnosed her with seizure disorder, caused in part by sleep deprivation, and recommended that Laurin work days exclusively. Laurin contacted the nurses' union after requesting, unsuccessfully, that the hospital accommodate her disability by placing her on a straight-days assignment. Although the hospital denied her a permanent straight-days position, Laurin was placed on a temporary "days-only" schedule to give her time to locate another vacant position in the hospital that would accommodate her schedule.

Laurin refused to consider an alternate job, and her temporary days-only schedule ended. After failing to report to work for an evening shift after her temporary schedule had ended, Laurin was fired. She sued both the hospital and the union, charging that the hospital had violated the ADA and the union had failed to pursue a grievance on her behalf.

The hospital did not dispute the existence of Laurin's disability. Rather, it argued that the only accommodation that Laurin would accept - exclusive first-shift work - would remove an "essential function" of Laurin's position. As such, Laurin's requested accommodation was not "reasonable," and therefore, not required by the ADA. The court agreed, noting that an employer has no duty to accommodate an employee's disability by eliminating an "essential function" of a position. The court then analyzed the EEOC's interpretive regulations to assess whether shift rotation was indeed an "essential function" of Laurin's job for purposes of the ADA.

Although Laurin's job description did not list shift rotation as an essential function, the court noted that granting Laurin's scheduling accommodation would force other nurses to bear the burden of covering additional non-day shifts. Because Laurin could produce no evidence to rebut the hospital's claim that the rotating shift scheduling was an essential part of her job, the court dismissed Laurin's suit and entered judgment for the hospital.

When faced with similar situations, employers should remember that the ADA does not require an employer to grant a disabled employee's request for a particular accommodation, as long as the employer offers an alternative accommodation that is reasonable. Further, the Laurin decision demonstrates that employers are not required to eliminate essential job functions to accommodate individuals with disabilities, and the employer's assessment of which functions are "essential" carries significant weight. By analyzing physical aspects of jobs and preparing accurate job descriptions that separate essential functions from more marginal job tasks, employers can enhance their positions when dealing with requests for accommodation and in defending ADA charges and lawsuits.