Groundskeeper’s Inability to Perform All ‘Essential’ Job Duties Dooms ADA Case, 11th Circuit Rules

If you’ve worked in most employment environments for very long, chances are you’ve seen it. “It” is the official job description of your job or the job you’re seeking. This description often contains a long list of “essential” duties, but some of those essential duties are, in the day-to-day completion of the job, rarely required. So what happens if you have a disability that impairs your ability to complete certain tasks that are “essential” but rarely needed? According to a recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, those uncommon tasks still matter. Since the duties listed in a county’s groundskeeper job description were all related to the essential demands of maintaining the county’s parks, the county was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired a groundskeeper who could not perform all of the essential duties the county listed for that job.

The employee in this case was a groundskeeper for a county-owned community recreational facility. After nine years working for the county, including eight years in the groundskeeper position, the county terminated the employee. Six months before the termination, the groundskeeper had suffered serious injuries in a severe motorcycle accident. The accident broke her leg and shattered her kneecap in eight places. After five months off from work, the groundskeeper attempted to return (armed with a note from her doctor stating that she was free of restrictions), but the county balked. After an examination by the county’s doctor and an occupational therapist, the county concluded that the groundskeeper could only perform roughly half of the duties listed in the groundskeeper job description. The county terminated her a few weeks later.

The groundskeeper brought forward a disability discrimination and retaliation lawsuit. The county sought summary judgment, and the trial court ruled for the county. The groundskeeper appealed but again lost. The employer won on the discrimination claim because there was one key area that tripped up the groundskeeper’s ability to go forward. The law requires that, to have a viable case of disability discrimination under the ADA, you must meet the definition of a “qualified individual.” A qualified individual is someone who has a disability and who “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”

In this case, the evidence showed that the groundskeeper could not perform all of the essential functions of her job with or without accommodation. Even though she raised an argument asserting that several of the duties listed under the job description for a groundskeeper were tasks that county groundskeepers rarely performed in real life, that did not save her case. Even if some of the duties listed rarely came up on the job, it was not unreasonable (and not illegal under the ADA) for the employer to demand that its groundskeepers be capable of completing all of the tasks it listed, since all of the duties were reasonably related to maintaining the county’s parks.

Since the employee’s limitations defeated her claim of being a qualified individual, this also meant that she lacked a prima facie case of disability discrimination. That outcome also played a role in defeating the employee’s retaliation claim. The appeals court sided with the lower court, deciding that the groundskeeper “did not demonstrate that she was a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA” and that she also failed to prove the required “causal connection” mandatory in all retaliation claims. Evidence in the case showed that the county had begun the termination process before the groundskeeper asked for her accommodation, which tended to show that there was an absence of connection between the termination and the accommodation request.

As an employer, you may find yourself in the position of needing to terminate employees with disabilities, including some who may have requested accommodations. In these settings, you should proceed with care. It is essential to ensure that you are acting in compliance with the law. The diligent Georgia disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have spent many years helping both employers and employees address disability discrimination issues and make sure that their business (or their employer’s business) is compliant.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

ADA’s Reasonable Accommodation Requirement Doesn’t Demand Non-Competitive Job Reassignment, 11th Circuit Says, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 26, 2017

Eleventh Circuit Upholds Decision for Employer That Denied Additional Leave to Employee With Disability, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 19, 2017

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