Essential Functions and the ADA: WI Federal Court Rules on ‘Qualified Individuals’
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects qualified individuals with disabilities from employment discrimination. An employee is only considered “qualified” under the ADA, however, if he can perform his position’s essential functions. If a disabled employee can perform only some of the possible job requirements, is he still able to perform his essential functions sufficient to trigger ADA protection? The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin recently addressed this question.
Who is a Qualified Individual Under the ADA?
Title I of the ADA protects only qualified individuals with disabilities. An individual is considered “qualified” if they can perform the essential functions of their job, with or without the assistance of a reasonable accommodation.
To determine if an employee is a qualified individual under the ADA, courts conduct a two-part inquiry. First, the courts consider whether the employee satisfied the prerequisites of the position, including appropriate education, experience, skills, and licensing. If they satisfy the prerequisites, the court then considers whether they can perform their position’s essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Randy Tesch was employed by the city of Ripon as a laborer in the Public Works Department for over 20 years. His position as a laborer required him to perform “arduous manual labor” on a regular basis.
After suffering a shoulder injury at work in February 2019, Tesch was subject to numerous work restrictions that were determined by his physician. Generally, the restrictions prohibited him from operating heavy machinery, pushing, pulling, and reaching with his injured arm, and heavy lifting. At the end of his healing in August 2019, he received permanent work restrictions from his doctor, which prohibited him from lifting more than 20 pounds on an occasional basis. His permanent restrictions were largely consistent with his previous restrictions during his healing period.
Based on his work restrictions, Tesch was unable to perform the kind of “arduous manual labor” required of a laborer. For example, laborers are required to lift up to 100 pounds, work from ladders, reach, push, and pull for various tasks. The city terminated his employment on October 6, 2019, based on his inability to perform the essential functions of a laborer, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Tesch then sued the city under the ADA for failure to accommodate, disparate treatment, and harassment, among other claims. The city asked the court for summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) in its favor, arguing he wasn’t a qualified individual under the ADA because he couldn’t perform his essential functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation.
In response, Tesch argued that “arduous manual labor” wasn’t an essential function of a laborer and that he could have performed his job if the city accommodated him by assigning him to only tasks that he could perform, such as operating vehicles and machinery.
The district court considered the arguments, ultimately concluding Tesch wasn’t a qualified individual under the ADA and granting summary judgment in favor of the city. Because the parties didn’t dispute that he satisfied the prerequisites of his job as a laborer, the court focused its analysis on whether he could perform his essential functions with or without accommodation.
The court defined essential functions as the fundamental job duties of the position. When analyzing essential functions, courts consider the employer’s judgment and written job descriptions as evidence. They also consider the practicality of certain functions, such as the consequences of not requiring an employee to perform the function, the amount of time an employee spends performing the function, and the experience of others who have held the same position.
The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals—which governs federal district courts in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana—has explicitly held, however, that a job function doesn’t need to consist of the majority of an employee’s time, or even a significant amount of time, to be considered essential. Additionally, job functions can be considered essential based on the limited number of available employees to which that function could be reallocated.
Based on this precedent, the district court concluded that “arduous manual labor” was indeed an essential function of a laborer, based on the written job description and the various examples of work required of laborers. The court explained that the premise of the laborer position was to perform manual labor for prolonged periods of time, and Tesch’s work restrictions prohibited him from doing so.
Moreover, the court reasoned that even though Tesch claimed he only spent approximately 5% of his time performing arduous manual labor, such tasks were essential to his position. The court also discounted his argument that he could lift more than 20 pounds with his uninjured arm, reasoning there were only limited times in which an item weighing more than 20 pounds was of a size and shape that would allow lifting with only one arm. Finally, the court determined that no reasonable accommodation would allow him to perform the arduous manual labor required of a laborer.
Ultimately, the court concluded Tesch had put forth no evidence he was a qualified individual under the ADA. Without meeting that threshold, he couldn’t proceed on any of his claims under the ADA, and the court dismissed the case, ruling in favor of the city. Tesch v. City of Ripon, no. 22-cv-043 (E.D. Wis.).
Claims under the ADA require employees to establish they are qualified individuals who can perform their essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation. If an employee isn’t a qualified individual, their ADA claims won’t succeed.
It can be difficult, however, to identify what a job’s essential functions are, and even more difficult to determine whether a disabled employee is able to perform them. You should take care to ensure the requirements and expectations of each position are clear, readily available, and consistently enforced to assist in defining the essential functions. If you have concerns about whether an employee or former employee is qualified under the ADA, you should consult with a qualified attorney.
This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured online in the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.