Recall the incontinent court reporter. She had a steady assignment compatible with her medical condition until the chief judge required court reporters to rotate through all courtrooms.  In the lawsuit challenging the court reporter’s termination, the court held that rotating was an essential function of the court reporter’s job and because she could not do this with or without an accommodation, she was not a qualified individual with a disability. Gratzl v. Office of the Chief Judges of the 12th, 18th, 19th and 22nd Judicial Circuits (April 7, 2010).

Now consider the bridge worker for the Illinois Department of Transportation, Miller, who developed acrophobia, or fear of heights. Bridge workers have various responsibilities, some of which are performed at significant heights. Initially, the employer allowed other members of his team to do the bridge work at heights.  Assigned to change a bulb while standing on a bridge beam wearing a lifeline, Miller had a panic attack. IDOT denied his request that he be excused from working on bridge beams and other extreme places over 20-25 feet. When discharged for an unrelated reason, Miller sued, claiming that IDOT failed to accommodate his disability. The district court granted IDOT’s motion for summary judgment, holding that working at heights above 25 feet was an essential function of Miller’s job. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the case for trial. Miller v. Illinois Dep’t of Transportation (May 10, 2011).

Why did the acrophobic bridge worker fare better than the incontinent court reporter? The key is how work was assigned. The court required all court reporters to rotate through all positions and the ability to do so was an essential function. But the bridge workers worked as a team, reassigning tasks among themselves according to abilities, preferences, and limitations. The court held that a reasonable jury could conclude that while some members of the bridge crew needed to be able to work at heights in exposed or extreme positions so that that bridge crew—as a unit—could do its job, each member of the bridge crew did not have to be able to do every task.

The message from this case is clear: if an employer believes that an employee’s ability to do all of the tasks involved in a position is essential, the employer should communicate this requirement, and then enforce it.  Conversely, if employees work as a team, it may not be essential that each member of the team be able to perform each assignment.