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ADA: Stand by truly essential job functions

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Courts usually defer to an em­­ployer’s designations of essential job functions as long as there’s a clear, reasonable explanation of why they are essential. That’s true even in compelling ADA cases where it’s clear a disabled employee is capable and could do the job if only she didn’t have to perform just one of those functions.

Recent case: Terri has type 1 diabetes, which requires her to check her blood sugar levels many times a day and carefully monitor every bite of food.

She worked on an Alliant Energy team that has to respond to frequent power outages. The team spent one week a month training. The rest of the time, team members rotated through day and night shifts at various locations.

According to Alliant, the rotating shifts were essential to maintaining a highly trained and responsive team that could deal with any power emergency.

Terri developed complications from her diabetes and took FMLA leave for surgery to amputate her toe. While she recovered, Terri’s doctor cleared her for light-duty work on the day shift and Alliant accommodated that request by placing her in a clerical job.

Eventually, Terri’s doctor said the day-shift restriction should be permanent. She discussed possible accommodations, but ultimately Alliant concluded it could not pull her away from the team and allow her to work days only.

She went out on disability and sued, alleging both that the shift work wasn’t essential and that she could have been accommodated with a shift change or other job.

The court disagreed. It said Alliant had shown that working rotating shifts as part of a team was an essential function of Terri’s job. Moving just one team member out wasn’t practical. (Kallail v. Alliant Energy, No. 11-2202, 8th Cir., 2012)

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