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Rarely-Performed Task Can Still Be Essential (Wednesday, May 8, 2013)

Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. (“Home Service”) delivers frozen foods to customers. Home Service employed Jeff Knutson as a Manager of a depot. Home Service’s position description stated that a Manager had to meet the Federal Department of Transportation eligibility requirements, including appropriate driver’s license and corresponding medical certification as a condition of employment for the position. Knutson’s offer of employment required him to be “DOT Qualified” for trucks weighing over 10,000 pounds and explained that the offer was expressly conditioned on meeting DOT and Company standards for a physical examination. Knutson actually held a Medical Examiner’s Certificate (MEC).

However, in March 2008, Knutson suffered a penetrating eye injury.  An eye doctor refused to give Knutson a waiver. Home Service placed him on a 30-day leave of absence to obtain either an MEC or to locate a non-DOT-qualified job at the company. When he failed to do either, Home Service fired Knutson.

The district court granted summary judgment to Home Service on Knutson’s Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) claim. On appeal, Knutson claimed that being DOT qualified to drive a delivery truck — and obtaining an MEC — was not an essential function of the Manager’s position.

Home Service supervisors testified that Managers drove delivery trucks to deliver product and train new employees, and all other Managers were DOT qualified.

Knutson claimed he had managed his depot successfully without driving a delivery truck. However, he was DOT qualified at the time of his eye injury, admitted to delivering product in his personal vehicle, and had driven a truck sometimes while serving as a Manager. The appeals court observed that Knutson’s “specific personal experience is of no consequence in the essential functions equation.” Instead, it is the written job description, the employer’s judgment, and the experience and expectations of all managers that established the essential functions of the job.

Being DOT qualified to drive a delivery truck, even if not done very often, was an essential function of Knutson’s position.  Because Knutson did not obtain an MEC — and therefore was not DOT qualified — he was not qualified to perform an essential job function.  

Knutson next argued that Home Service did not make reasonable accommodations to his condition.  Knutson’s requested accommodation was to perform his job without being DOT qualified.  An accommodation is unreasonable if it requires the employer to eliminate an essential function of the job, and an employer is not required to reassign existing workers to assist the employee in his essential duties. Therefore, eliminating the essential job function of being DOT qualified would be an unreasonable accommodation.

In any event, Home Service attempted to accommodate Knutson and engaged in an interactive dialogue by giving him the option of applying for non-DOT-qualified jobs at the company.

Under the circumstances, the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to Home Service, because Knutson was not qualified to perform an essential function of his job.

An employer’s judgment about the essential job functions can often influence a court, as will a well-written job description.

This case makes several points clear.  Job duties that are rarely performed can still be “essential functions” if the employee may be required to perform them from time to time.  An employer does not have to eliminate an essential job function to accommodate an employee who cannot perform that function due to a disability.  An employer generally does not have to reassign other employees to help an employee perform his essential duties.

Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 711 F.3d 911 (8th Cir. 2013)

· Michael R. Lied
· Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC
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· MLied@howardandhoward.com