Thursday, October 30, 2014

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Endorses EEOC Job Restructuring Guidance in ADA Case

It is generally understood that employers are not required to assign essential job functions to other employees as a means of accommodating an ADA qualified employee (Basith v. Cook County, 241 F 3d 919 7th Circuit 2001).

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently indicated however that an employer may need to make minor adjustments in the work duties of other employees in order to enable a disabled employee to perform central job functions. The court cited to the EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Guidance lists job restructuring as one of the accommodations an employer must consider.

In Kauffman v. Petersen Health Care VII, No. 13-3661,decided October 16, 2014 the Plaintiff was a hairdresser at a nursing home. As part of her duties, she wheeled residents from their rooms to the nursing home’s beauty shop. The Plaintiff suffered a prolapsed bladder and as a result could no longer push or lift anything more than 50 pounds. Residents weighed from 75 to 400 pounds. Defendant terminated Plaintiff because she could not perform the essential job function of pushing resident wheelchairs to and from the beauty shop.

The District Judge granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment holding that wheeling residents was an essential function of Plaintiff’s job and Plaintiff could not perform that function with or without reasonable accommodation.

The Court of Appeals reversed.   In its opinion the court calculated that the Plaintiff spent a small part of her day (approximately 5%) wheeling residents and an orderly could be assigned such work, “So minor an adjustment would be reasonable.” The court also questioned whether wheeling residents was a really an essential function if it was such a small part of Plaintiff’s work day.

In a concurring opinion Justice Manion stated that he wrote separately to stress: (1) In determining whether a task constitutes an essential job function the percent of time spent on the task and the cost to the employer if the task is reassigned are not necessarily deciding factors; and (2) An employee need not reassign an essential job function to another employee.

Employers may be confused as to what constitutes an essential job function and a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Kauffman illustrates the difficulty in making these decisions. Employers are wise to consult with their attorney for guidance.