In a recent unpublished opinion, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a carefully considered and well-structured instruction for those who want to further understand the concept of “essential functions” of a position in cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Bagwell v. Morgan County Commission, No. 15-15274 (11th Cir., January 18, 2017). There, the Court made it clear that an employer sets the essential functions of a position, based on business needs.
Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability is someone who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires. To support an ADA claim, a person must show either that s/he can perform essential function without assistance, or can perform those functions with some reasonable accommodation. An individual who cannot make this initial showing is not qualified for protection under the ADA.
Therefore, in reviewing a lawsuit under the ADA, a court’s first step is to determine the “essential functions” of the job – the fundamental job duties of the position. If the plaintiff in an ADA lawsuit is unable to perform those functions on his or her own, or with a reasonable accommodation, the lawsuit cannot go forward.
In the case under review by the Eleventh Circuit, Katrina Bagwell had sued her employer, Morgan County, Alabama. She claimed that her ADA claim was wrongly dismissed by a trial court, and contended that the park groundskeeper position she had held involved far fewer essential functions than were listed in the job description. Her argument was based on the fact that because some functions were “infrequently performed” – a fact not disputed by the County – they could not have been “essential.”
The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, stating that the “nature of the groundskeeper position required the employee’s duties to shift based on [the park’s] specific needs,” and not every function had to be continuously performed. Because Bagwell suffers from a medical condition exacerbated by traversing uneven and wet surfaces, walking, and standing for periods of time, she could not undertake those functions during a flare-up of her condition. Because her job required picking up trash and tree limbs, traversing the park daily, and cleaning park bathrooms regularly, her periodic inability to undertake those functions kept her from being a “qualified individual” protected under the ADA.
While an analysis of the essential functions of a particular job must be done on a case-by-case basis, this opinion indicates that it is the employer’s view of a job’s responsibilities that carry the strongest significance. According to this Court, although an employer may be required to restructure a particular job by altering or eliminating marginal functions, “an employer is not required to transform a position into another one by eliminating essential functions.”
Photo of Delano Park, from Morgan County, AL Convention and Visitors Bureau website (http://decaturcvb.org/item/delano-park)