- A former police officer with PTSD failed to show that he could perform the essential functions of his job, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held, declining to revive his lawsuit (Felton v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, No. 19-60563 (5th Cir. Jan. 8, 2020)).
- After being involved in multiple shootings at work, Lance Felton developed post-traumatic stress disorder, court documents said. He was placed on leave but never provided a doctor's note clearing him for duty as requested; the city eventually fired him, citing attendance violations.
- Felton sued, alleging disability discrimination. A district court found that he failed to show he could satisfy the job's essential functions — a standard required for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suits — and the 5th Circuit affirmed. Felton failed to show that he was qualified for the job even with accommodations and failed to identify a vacant position for which he was qualified, the appeals court concluded.
Essential functions are the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). An employee who cannot perform the essential functions of a job, either with or without a reasonable accommodation, is not qualified for the job and generally cannot invoke the ADA's protections.
"Essential functions" can vary depending on the job. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that regular attendance can be an essential function for supervisors. The 8th Circuit recently decided that a worker at an Iowa meat and processing facility who was absent 195 days was not qualified for ADA protection. But other courts have reached the opposite conclusion: The 6th Circuit said that a full-time presence might not be essential for an HR generalist's job.
Courts often look to job descriptions to help determine the essential functions of a job. The EEOC said in a guidance document that "a written job description prepared before advertising or interviewing for a job will be considered by EEOC as evidence of essential functions."
Because courts often give deference to employers' determinations, written, up-to-date job descriptions that spell out what is essential and what is not essential is key, according to agency's guidance. To ensure that happens, experts recommend that HR tie job description reviews to annual performance reviews and have employees sign off on them at that time.