Written job descriptions not critical under ADA
Attend a seminar on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and you may well come away with the sense that written job descriptions are absolutely necessary to determine the essential functions of a particular job. In a recent case, however, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Kentucky) acknowledged the legitimacy of "essential job functions" that were based not on written job descriptions but on the testimony of the employer's management personnel. The court also recognized that in an automobile manufacturing setting, production targets or quotas may well be a necessity if the parts being produced are being supplied to an ever-moving automobile assembly line.
Raymond Denczak first began working for Ford Motor Company on an assembly line in 1972. In 1995, he had a series of three operations, which resulted in the removal of his rectum and colon, and was off work for a year.
In 1996, when Denczak returned to work, he provided Ford with a letter from his physician indicating that he required "frequent bathroom use." The company initially returned Denczak to the assembly line but found that it wasn't a suitable job for him because it was too hard for him to find a replacement whenever he needed a bathroom break. Accordingly, the company reassigned him to a job in which he worked alone and could use the facilities as needed.
Later that year, Denczak had yet another surgery — this time to remove his gallbladder. He was off work for five weeks after the surgery. When he returned to work, he provided Ford with another note from his doctor, which indicated that besides the frequent bathroom breaks, he also need a 40-hour workweek as well as permission to "work at [his] own pace." The company accommodated his restrictions by placing him on a two-man press job. He remained in that job until 2003, even though his foreman complained that he left to go to the bathroom too frequently.
ûn 2003, Ford placed Denczak in a "cleaner 3" position — a permanent job cleaning bathrooms, offices, and the cafeteria. He believed that the job fully accommodated his restrictions. Because the position was governed by seniority, however, another worker "bumped" him out of it after about a year, when the company reduced the total number of "cleaner 3" positions from six to three.
Ford then reassigned Denczak to a welding job that required him to work only 40 hours per week and allowed him to work at his own pace and take breaks as needed. The only caveat was that he was required to produce 225 units per hour. That requirement was tempered, however, by the fact that employees working in welding jobs generally weren't subject to discipline as long as they could meet 80 percent of the production target.
After performing the welding job for a while, Denczak admitted that he could produce only 75 to 95 parts per hour — approximately 35 percent of the production target. Because his personal physician had placed him under "work at your own pace" restrictions, Ford referred him to the plant doctor for an opinion about whether his meeting only 35 percent of the target was adequate, given his doctor's restriction. The plant doctor opined that Denczak should be able to satisfy the full target output of 225 units per hour.
A week or so later, Denczak met with Ford's plant doctor and expressed his disagreement with the doctor's assessment of his capabilities, insisting that he couldn't perform any production jobs at full-output level. Based on Denczak's assessment of his own capabilities, the plant doctor issued a "no production work" restriction. Because Ford had no nonproduction work available, Denczak was placed on disability leave. He retired a few weeks later.
Denczak sued Ford, claiming that the company failed to accommodate his disability and harassed him because of it. The trial court rejected both claims.
Sixth Circuit's decision
The Sixth Circuit agreed with Ford and the trial court that Denczak's claims should be dismissed. To prove a prima facie (minimally sufficient) disability discrimination claim, he had to show that (1) he had a disability, (2) he was otherwise qualified for the job, and (3) the employer refused to make a reasonable accommodation.
Based at least in part on Denczak's own testimony about his inability to meet Ford's welding production targets, the Sixth Circuit found that he couldn't demonstrate that he was qualified for any production position at the company.
The Sixth Circuit also examined the production targets to determine whether they were in fact an essential function of the production jobs, as Ford argued. Because the parts welded by Denczak were supplied to the assembly line, the company's supervisors and managers testified that the number of parts and speed of delivery to the line were critical to the company's ability to satisfy its customers' needs. Significantly, the company didn't have a written job description supporting its contention that the welding production target was an essential job function.
Based on that evidence, the Sixth Circuit agreed that the welding production target was an essential function of Denczak's job. Because he admittedly could meet only approximately 35 percent of the target, he wasn't qualified to retain the position.
Turning to Denczak's failure-to-accommodate claim, the Sixth Circuit rejected it, too. He claimed that when it became apparent that he couldn't meet the welding production target, Ford should have provided him with a nonproduction position as a further accommodation of his condition. The company countered with evidence that no such jobs were available between the time when it realized that he couldn't meet his production quota and the date he decided to retire.
Noting that employers aren't required to "create new jobs, displace existing employees from their positions, or violate other employees' rights under a collective bargaining agreement or other non-discriminatory policy in order to accommodate a disabled individual," the Sixth Circuit agreed that Ford hadn't violated the ADA by not finding a nonproduction job for Denczak before he decided to retire. Denczak v. Ford Motor Co.,2007 WL 328615, 18 A.D. Cases 1731 (6th Cir., 2007).
Lesson for employers
The outcome isn't particularly surprising. Both the trial court and the Sixth Circuit appear to have followed established precedent for determining whether an individual (1) is qualified and (2) was afforded a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. What's interesting about the case, however, are two points:
- Both courts recognized that written job descriptions aren't critical in determining the essential functions of any given job.
- Production quotas or targets established by employers in the manufacturing setting should receive substantial deference.
If you have any questions or need help, please contact any member of the Greenebaum Doll & McDonald Labor and Employment Department.
Copyright 2007 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC
KENTUCKY EMPLOYMENT LAW LETTER does not attempt to offer solutions to individual problems but rather to provide information about current developments in Kentucky employment law. Questions about individual problems should be addressed to the employment law attorney of your choice.