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A federal court of appeals recently ruled that, standing alone, full-time presence at the workplace is not an essential function of a job. In the case, an HR Generalist returned to work part-time while suffering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety. Initially, the employer accommodated the employee by allowing her to work five half-days per week and perform some work from home. However, after the employee sought to extend her part-time work, the employer determined it could no longer accommodate her and discharged the HR Generalist. In response, the former employee filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
To prove a disability discrimination case, a plaintiff first must show that he/she is an individual with a disability and is otherwise qualified for him/her job. A plaintiff can demonstrate he/she is otherwise qualified for a job if he/she can perform the position’s essential functions with or without an accommodation. Essential job functions are core job duties which, if removed, would fundamentally alter the position. For most jobs, courts have found that “regular, in-person attendance is an essential function.” However, determining a job’s essential functions is a fact-intensive analysis which may include a review of: the time spent on a function; the employer’s judgment; written job descriptions; and the consequences of not performing a particular function.
Here, the Court concluded that “full-time presence at work” is not an essential job function on its own. According to the Court, the HR Generalist presented sufficient evidence that she could perform the core tasks of her position in a part-time role. In particular: the HR Generalist testified she completed all her work on time; a former colleague confirmed she was effective on a half-time schedule, and she received a “very positive” performance evaluation while working part-time (which made no reference to full-time work). Furthermore, the HR Generalist had not received discipline, written criticism, a performance improvement plan, or complaints about her work. For all these reasons, the Court ruled that an employer must show why an employee needs to work on a full-time schedule.
This case substantively impacts and provides a useful lesson for many employers. Issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision directly applies to employers with a presence in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. In addition, the case offers several takeaways. First, documentation is key. An employer should include all of a job’s essential functions in the job description. Employers also should document the need for those functions and an employee’s ability (or inability) to meet them. Here, the Court placed significant weight on the HR Generalist’s positive performance evaluation. In another case, the employer documented specific duties that could not be performed remotely and an employee’s failure to complete work in other telework situations. Furthermore, employers should be consistent with providing accommodations. Here, the Court also considered the employer’s decision to initially accommodate the HR Generalist’s part-time work before later changing course. For all these reasons, employers should be prepared to explain why a job function is essential, remain consistent in their decision-making, and contact counsel with questions.