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“Essential Functions” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Can Include Job Functions that are Infrequently Performed

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered employers generally to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities. The ADA provides, however, that the employee must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the job with the accommodation, and that the accommodation cannot prove to be an “undue hardship” on the employer. 

In the recent case of Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a job requirement can be an “essential function,” even if the employee is not required to perform the function on a regular basis.

In this case, Mr. Knutson was a manager for Schwan’s Home Service, which delivers frozen food. Managers for Schwan’s are required to maintain DOT driving certification.  In March 2008, Mr. Knutson sustained an eye injury.  Because of the eye injury, Mr. Knutson was required to undergo a medical exam and be recertified.  In December 2008, an eye doctor refused to give Mr. Knutson a DOT certification or a waiver.  Schwan’s then gave Mr. Knutson 30 days to find a job within the company that did not require DOT driving certification.  Mr. Knutson was unable to find such a job within the company and was terminated by Schwan’s. 

Following his termination, Mr. Knutson filed suit against Schwan’s pursuant to the ADA.  He argued that since he was able to successfully manage his terminal without driving a truck that maintaining the DOT certification was not an “essential function” of his position.  The evidence before the court showed that Mr. Knutson was DOT qualified at the time of his injury; he admitted to delivering product in his personal vehicle; and he testified that since November 2007 that he had driven a truck less than 50 times while working as a manager.   

The court disagreed with Mr. Knutson and held that “essential functions” of a job are determined based on the written job description, the employer’s judgment, and the experience and expectations of all individuals working in the same position.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of Schwan’s.

The court’s ruling in this case is good news for employers.  Employers should use this case as a reminder of the importance of having a carefully analyzed comprehensive written job description for all positions, clearly identifying essential functions of the position.  In addition, if essential functions of a position change over time, it is important to make appropriate revisions to the written job description for the position.

© 2017 Poyner Spruill LLP. All rights reserved.


About this Author

Steven A. Rowe, Poyner Spruill Law firm, Employment Matters Attorney

Steve represents employers in a wide variety of employment matters in state and federal court and before the North Carolina Industrial Commission, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, North Carolina Employment Security Commission, State of North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, United States Department of Labor, and the North Carolina Department of Labor. In addition, Steve represents business, insurance and housing authority clients in a wide range of matters in state and federal court. Steve regularly advises clients on employment issues and matters and...

David L. Woodard, Employment Litigation Attorney, Poyner Spruill, Law firm

David practices in the area of employment litigation.  He regularly advises and defends clients in race, age, disability and sex discrimination and harassment cases; reviews handbooks and termination issues; and provides compliance advice on matters of employment law.

Representative Experience

McNeil v. Scotland County - Obtained summary judgment for employer where plaintiff alleged race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as well as violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Successfully defended the judgment in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Williams v. City of Fayetteville - Obtained summary judgment on former employee’s claims of retaliation for exercising First Amendment rights, violations of due process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.