Employers Must Have Duties Based Reasons to Support the Assertion that Full-Time Attendance Is an Essential Job Function

August 20, 2018

Careful readers of this space know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require employers to allow modified work schedules when appropriate. An issue that often arises when considering a modified work schedule is whether an employee can perform the essential functions of their job if they are not at work full time. A recent decision from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals makes it clear that employers cannot insist that a disabled employee work full time just because the employer says so. The Sixth Circuit held that although full-time presence may well be an essential function of some jobs, it is a fact-specific inquiry and depends on the job. Employee was able to point to two employees who had received longer periods of medical leave for non-pregnancy conditions and she presented an affidavit from a co-worker that there were no problems resulting from Employee working part-time and that all the department functions had been fulfilled. It is recommended that all employers have SESCO review job descriptions and accommodations granted to other employees in the past before denying any accommodation under the ADA.

In Hostettler v. College of Wooster, Employee was fired by her employer, the College of Wooster, while recovering from postpartum depression and separation anxiety after the birth of her child.

Believing that Employee was suffering from “one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had seen, Employee’s doctor provided a restriction that Employee return on a part-time basis only, working a total of two or three days a week. The physician believed this would only last a couple of months.

Employee’s supervisor generally agreed to that accommodation but countered that she work 5 half-days per week instead. Employee accepted this and returned to work in late May on that schedule. Her performance evaluation, conducted in July 2014, contained no negative feedback, and referred to Employeeas a “great colleague and a welcome addition to the HR team!” Shortly thereafter, Employee submitted an updated medical certification that continued the restriction and estimated that she could return to a full-time schedule in early September. The next day she was fired because, the supervisor argued, the department could not function appropriately unless Employee could return to full-time work immediately.

Employee sued. The district court granted Wooster’s motion for summary judgment, accepting the college’s assertion that full-time presence was an essential function of the HR Generalist position. According to the District Court, because she could not work full time, she was not qualified.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed. The Sixth Circuit held that although full-time presence may well be an essential function of some jobs, it is a fact-specific inquiry and depends on the job. Employee was able to point to two employees who had received longer periods of medical leave for non-pregnancy conditions and she presented an affidavit from a co-worker that there were no problems in HR resulting from Employee’s working part-time and that all the department functions had been fulfilled. This, according to the appeals court, created questions of fact that a jury needed to resolve: “In sum, full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is. If it were otherwise, employers could refuse any accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week.”

The thoughtful employer will not deny a request for a part-time accommodation unless it can show (and hopefully document) that full time presence requirements are logically tied to some other work-related requirement.