One of the most common issues that we deal with under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is how an employer should respond when an employee’s healthcare provider imposes certain work restrictions. Often, a healthcare provider will restrict the employee’s hours of work. On this point, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that, due to the circumstances of the Plaintiff’s job, working overtime was an essential function of her position. Because the Plaintiff was restricted from working overtime, she was therefore not qualified to perform the essential functions of the position and could not maintain an ADA claim against the employer.
In McNeil v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., the Plaintiff worked as a critical call dispatcher in the company’s 24-hour dispatch call center. In this role, the Plaintiff was responsible for answering incoming phone calls related to incidents on or near railroad property to ensure employee and public safety. Each dispatcher works an 8.25-hour shift, they are not allowed to leave their shift until they are relieved, and they are expected to resolve ongoing calls even after their shift has ended. Additionally, they may be required to work overtime if another employee fails to show up to work. In that event, a dispatcher is required to work up to four (4) additional hours either before or after their normal shift.
After a medical absence, the Plaintiff presented a doctor’s note stating that she could return to work, but could only work morning shifts and could not work any overtime hours. After an interactive discussion with the Plaintiff, the employer advised her that there was no reasonable accommodation that would allow her to perform the essential functions of her position, and her employment was terminated.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found that there were several relevant factors to consider when evaluating whether an employee can perform an essential function of the job. These factors included: (1) the employer’s judgment as to what functions are essential; (2) written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing job applicants; (3) the amount of time spent on the job performing the function in question; (4) the consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the functions; and (5) the current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.
In applying the foregoing factors to the employee’s overtime restriction, the Court concluded that, because of the clear “mandatory overtime” policy as well as the significant safety responsibilities associated with performing the job during overtime hours, the employee’s work restriction rendered her unable to perform the essential functions of her position. As such, she was not a qualified employee under the ADA and could not maintain a claim against the employer.
This decision clearly demonstrates the close attention to detail and analysis that is required when considering an employee’s request for an accommodation under the ADA. If an employer intends to defend an ADA claim by maintaining that the employee could not perform an essential function of the job, the employer should ensure that the job description and other documentation is consistent with that defense. The employer should also ensure that the job does, in fact, require that specific function by showing that other employees in the position are likewise required to perform that function. And, finally, the employer should analyze how much time is spent performing that job function as well as what the consequences would be if the employee were not required to perform that function. Given the nature of the Plaintiff’s job here, the employer’s defense was successful on those bases.
Of course, this case does not present a “bright-line rule” that overtime work will always constitute an essential function of any particular job. However, with the right evidence, an employer can successfully defend against an ADA claim by establishing that the employee is not qualified to perform the essential functions of his or her position.