Is every function really essential? Be flexible about disabled employees’ duties

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

An employer has learned the hard way that insisting every function of a job is essential is a bad policy when it comes to employees with disabilities.

Recent case: John Shepherd worked for an AutoZone store selling auto parts. About 80% of his job was directly related to sales functions, which he excelled at. Shepherd earned regular awards for customer service, loss prevention, safety and sales numbers.

However, a neck injury made it difficult for him to use a mop—and all employees were expected to perform janitorial duties. Shepherd requested an accommodation, but the company refused, insisting that every task in his job description was essential.

Shepherd went to the EEOC, which sued on his behalf.

A jury sided with Shepherd after hearing testimony that there were al­­ways at least two employees in the store who could have mopped instead of making Shepherd do it. The jury awarded Shepherd $100,000 in lost wages and $500,000 as punitive dam­­ages. (See “ADA: Now Auto­­Zone has the pain in the neck.”)

AutoZone appealed, claiming that Shepherd wasn’t qualified for ADA protection because he couldn’t perform the essential function of mopping the floors.

The court let the jury’s decision stand and authorized punitive damages because it appeared management ignored its obligations under the ADA. Plus, the court said the company would have to comply with EEOC training standards. (EEOC v. AutoZone, No. 07-1145, CD IL, 2011)

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