- A former San Antonio city employee failed to show he was qualified for his job as a journeyman cable splicer at the time he was fired, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, upholding a lower court's summary judgment for the city (Sanchez v. City of San Antonio, No. 19-50500 (5th Cir. Feb. 21, 2020)).
- Gabriel Sanchez was fired after several workplace safety incidents, some of which he caused and some of which caused him an injury. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the last accident and unable to return to work. After several months, the city fired him, citing a "pattern of poor judgment, unsafe acts & behavior and unwillingness to follow critical work instructions." Sanchez sued, alleging the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by firing him because of his disability.
- A district court granted the employer's request for summary judgment, finding that Sanchez failed to show he was qualified for the job because he had not yet been cleared for work, as required for an ADA claim. And, even if he were qualified, he failed to show that his firing was pretext for disability discrimination, the court said. On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed, concluding that Sanchez was not qualified for the job because he could not show he was able to perform the essential functions of the job on the date he was fired.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained that essential functions are the fundamental job duties that an employee must be able to perform. If an employee cannot perform the essential functions of a job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation, the worker is not qualified for the position and generally cannot invoke the protections offered by the ADA.
"Essential functions" vary from job to job. Earlier this year, for example, a former police officer with PTSD who wasn't cleared to return to work failed to show that he could perform the essential functions of his job. Regular attendance for supervisors can be an essential function, some courts have found. And yet another court determined that staying awake was an essential job function for a cable TV/internet technician with narcolepsy whose job involved monitoring outages.
Job descriptions can be an important element in determining the essential functions of a job and courts often rely on them, giving deference to the employers' determinations, experts say. EEOC also said in a guidance document that an employer's judgment and a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job will be considered evidence of essential functions by the federal agency.
As a result, employers may want to prioritize written, up-to-date job descriptions that spell out what is essential and what is not essential. Experts have said it's a good idea to tie job description reviews to annual performance reviews and that employers have employees sign off on them at that time.