- A cable TV/internet technician with narcolepsy failed to persuade an appeals court that staying awake was not an essential function of her job (Clark v. Charter Communications, LLC, No. 18-11492 (5th Cir. June 19, 2019)).
- Danielle Clark's job was to monitor computer displays tracking the network's status and to immediately dispatch a technician in the event of an outage. Clark had trouble staying awake during her shifts due to her narcolepsy. Her employer tried to accommodate her by providing additional time off and extra breaks, but co-workers began to make negative comments and request her termination. Clark sued, alleging disability discrimination and harassment, failure to provide reasonable accommodations, failure to engage in the interactive process, and retaliation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Texas law.
- A federal district court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, concluding that Clark had failed to establish that she was "otherwise qualified for the position and duties of a specialist." On appeal, the 5th Circuit affirmed.
"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 cannot invoke the protections offered by the ADA.
"Essential functions" can vary depending on the job. Sometimes basic elements of a job qualify as essential functions. In one instance, for example, a court ruled that regular attendance for supervisors can be considered an essential function.
Because courts often give deference to employers when deciding what constitutes an essential job function, a written, up-to-date job descriptions that spell out what is essential and what is marginal is key, according to the EEOC document, The ADA: Your Responsibilities as an Employer.
A written job description signed by the employee is important, as are regular reviews of job descriptions. Many experts recommend tying the updates to annual performance reviews and having employees sign off on them at that time.