The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 to prevent discrimination against employees based on disabilities. This does not mean that employers violate the ADA if they terminate or refuse to hire employees with disabilities. Rather, the law provides an exception if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job without reasonable accommodation.
For example, a bus company could refuse to hire someone who is severely visually impaired to work as a bus driver because there are no reasonable accommodations that would allow that person to perform the essential functions of the job—namely, safely operating a large vehicle.
The Limitations of Job Descriptions
A key element in ADA cases is determining what the essential functions of the job actually are. Employers often point to the job description they provide as strong evidence—if not a definitive characterization—of those essential functions. But a recent case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals makes clear that a job description alone won’t shield companies from potential liability under the ADA.
The court heard the case of an ex-Bemis Company worker employed as a press operator who injured his shoulder on the job. After receiving surgery on the shoulder, the employee’s doctor imposed work restrictions on him. Bemis, believing the restrictions prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job, terminated the employee, and the employee sued.
Rather than focus entirely on the job description, the 6th Circuit agreed with the trial court from which the case was appealed.
Implications of Gunter v. Bemis
In this case, the employee was able to perform the duties of the job even with his physical limitations following the shoulder injury and resulting surgery. A medical evaluator determined that the employee could perform jobs with light physical demands.
The job description, however, specified he needed to be able to do jobs with medium physical demands, which the evaluator determined he could not do. In practice, though, the jury found that the employee was still able to perform his job based on assistance provided by press helpers.
This is an important case for employers when considering potential ADA liability. The key takeaway: Even a carefully crafted job description will not shield employers from liability if the facts on the ground show that an employee is capable of doing his or her job.