Seventh Circuit Holds Job Description Alone Was Insufficient to Establish Essential Function of Job

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court governing Illinois, overturned a district court’s ruling that an employer could fire an employee for failing to possess a commercial driver’s license (“CDL”) required to perform the driving functions of his mechanic’s helper position without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

In Shell v. Smith, the employee argued that his termination after 12 years of employment violated the ADA because the employer failed to accommodate his vision and hearing impairments that precluded him from obtaining a CDL. While the employer’s job description did provide that a mechanic’s helper “may occasionally drive and deliver buses to various field locations,” the employee stated that the job description had not changed since he was hired 12 years earlier and he never once drove a bus during his 12 years of employment.

Further, the employee stated his employer was aware of the vision/hearing impairments that prohibited him from obtaining a CDL when it hired him.

The employer argued the termination did not violate the ADA because the employee could not obtain a CDL, which was a lawful qualification necessary to perform the essential driving functions of his mechanic’s helper position. The employer argued that to require it to reassign this essential function to other employees would decrease the efficiency of the employer’s operations. Further, the employer argued that just because it restructured the job to remove the essential function of driving in the past does not require it to continue to go beyond the ADA’s requirements.

In rejecting these arguments, the court stated “it is difficult to see how the duty could be deemed essential . . . when there is no evidence that its reassignment impacted the City’s ability to provide dependable transit services to its citizens in an efficient or effective manner, or otherwise create a hardship or burden.” For these reasons, the court held that a jury must determine whether driving was an essential function of the position.

This decision again illustrates the importance of maintaining accurate job descriptions and the importance of documenting, in writing, any modifications made to any job description for an employee in response to a reasonable accommodation request or for any other reason.

Please contact John DiJohn or Cindi DeCola with your accommodation inquiries.

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