Failure to accommodate claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act frequently stand or fall on a determination of the essential functions of the position at issue. Since the ADA requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation that will allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the position that the employee holds or desires, a critical piece of the accommodation analysis is identification of the essential functions.  A recent ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals emphasizes the significant role that the job description plays in that analysis.

Snead v. Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University Board of Trustees, No. 17-10338 (11th Cir. Feb. 21, 2018), involved a failure to accommodate claim from a former police officer at Florida A&M University.  In August 2013, the new police chief at the University changed the work schedule for officers from eight hours to twelve hours.  Snead tried working the twelve-hour shifts, but experienced medical issues related to his high blood pressure.  After Snead’s doctor identified the change in work schedule as the cause of his medical problems, Snead requested that he be returned to a work schedule that consisted of eight-hour shifts.  The University rejected that request based, in part, on the fact that working a twelve-hour shift was an essential function of the job.  Snead subsequently retired from employment and brought suit against the University for failing to accommodate his request for an eight-hour work shift.  A federal jury found in Snead’s favor and awarded him more than $250,000.

On appeal, Florida A&M argued that Snead was not a “qualified individual” within the meaning of the ADA since he could not work a twelve-hour shift, which was an essential function of that position. However, the Eleventh Circuit, relying on the language in the University’s job description for police officers, rejected that argument.  The applicable job description contained a section listing the “Essential Functions” of the position, but that section did not mention shift length.  Instead, a separate section of the job description entitled “Working Hours” referenced the twelve-hour work shift, but also stated that based “upon the needs of the departments, shifts may be changed.”  Since shift length was not specifically referenced in the essential functions section of the position statement, the Court of Appeals found that the jury had reasonably determined that Snead was capable of performing all essential functions of the position.

Many employers require employees to work a specific shift schedule or, at times, even a rotating schedule. For employers who consider the ability to work a set schedule to be an essential function of the job, the Snead decision provides a cautionary tale.  The EEOC’s ADA Regulations clearly indicate that a written job description is evidence of the essential functions of the job.  29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3). However, just as an employer can use a well-drafted job description in its favor when defending against an ADA claim, a poorly-drafted or incomplete job description may lead to an adverse finding as it did in Snead.  With that in mind, employers are strongly encouraged to regularly review their job descriptions to ensure that they actually align with the essential functions of the job.