Can a Job Function Be “Essential” under the ADA if it is Rarely Performed?

Yes – a recent 8th Circuit Court of Appeals case makes clear that job functions may be considered “essential” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even if they are rarely performed by the employee in question. Under the ADA, an employer may be required to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee, but employers are generally are not required to reallocate the “essential functions” of the employee’s job to other workers.

In Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., the 8th Circuit held that it was an essential function of a manager’s job to be certified by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to drive delivery trucks. See Case No. 12-2240 (8th Cir., Apr. 3, 2013). DOT certification was listed as a requirement in the manager’s job description, and there was no dispute that the employee had driven delivery trucks in the past. The employer in Knutson terminated the plaintiff after he sustained an eye injury and no longer met the DOT’s eligibility requirements for driving the delivery trucks. In arguing that his termination violated the ADA, the plaintiff argued that he could perform his manager job successfully without driving a truck. The plaintiff testified that he drove a delivery truck less than 50 times between November of 2007 and his termination in January of 2009.

In holding that DOT certification was an essential job function, the 8th Circuit held in Knutson that the employee’s specific personal experience was not relevant in determining essential job functions. Instead, the job description, the employer’s judgment, and the experience and expectations of all employees in the same position are what generally establish the essential functions of the job. In support of this position, the court cited a previous case in which the court held that a job function may be essential even if the employee never performed it so long as he “may be required” to perform it as part of his job. See Dropinski v. Douglas County, Nebraska, 298 F.3d 704, 708–09 (8th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, the 8th Circuit held in Knutson that the trial court correctly granted summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiffs’ ADA claim.

Takeaway: Determining what job functions are “essential” and what job functions are “marginal” before an accommodation is requested is one way that employers can be prepared to address a request for accommodation. The Knutson case shows that job functions may qualify as “essential” under the ADA even if they are not frequently performed.