Employment Discrimination and "Essential" Job Functions

There are a number of employment laws that protect a worker's right to maintain his or her job despite a temporary or permanent disability, including the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act. All of these laws presume that the employee is actually qualified for the job. For example, while the ADA requires an employer to make any requested “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee, that does not mean that an employer must retain an employee who cannot perform the “essential functions” of a position.

Judge: Working Overtime a Necessary Qualification for Office Manager's Position

What constitutes an “essential function” will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. Federal courts in New York generally look at four factors in deciding whether or not a given job function is essential:

  • The employer's own determination;
  • The written job descriptions prepared by the employer in conjunction with the hiring and interview process;
  • The actual amount of time the employee spent on the function; and
  • The amount of time the employee's predecessors and successors in the same position spent on the function.

Since the third and fourth factors focus on how the job is actually performed, as opposed to how the position is described, judges may give them greater weight. This means that even if a position is not formally advertised as requiring a certain ability or skill, it can still be deemed “essential,” and thus the employer may legally discriminate against an employee who cannot perform the function.

Consider this recent decision from a federal court in upstate New York. The plaintiff here worked as an office manager for the defendant. After suffering a serious back injury, the plaintiff took medical leave under FMLA. Although the plaintiff's doctor medically cleared her to return to work with restrictions, she was not able to work more than eight hours per day. The defendant claimed the office manager's position required someone who could work overtime, and on those grounds it fired the plaintiff. She subsequently sued the defendant for violations of FMLA, the ADA, and federal and state employment discrimination laws.

The federal judge presiding over the case, adopting a magistrate's earlier recommendations, dismissed the lawsuit in December 2017. The judge said that the plaintiff's allegations “boil down to a single issue: whether working overtime is an essential function of the office manager position.” The judge answered that it was.

In making this determination, the judge relied largely on the actual work experience of the plaintiff and the other people who served as the defendant's office managers. Although the position's written job description made no reference to mandatory overtime, the judge noted that during her tenure the plaintiff “worked overtime ninety-one percent of her workdays.” This was consistent with the experiences of the women who held the same position before and after the plaintiff. “As a practical matter,” the judge concluded, “the [defendant's] office manager worked overtime all the time.” Since the plaintiff stipulated she could no longer work overtime, she could not perform an “essential function” of her job, thereby absolving the defendant of any legal liability for her termination.

Speak With a New York City Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

It is important to reiterate that what constitutes an essential job function will vary depending on the employer and the position. This is why it is important to work with an experienced New York employment attorney if you need to pursue a discrimination or retaliation claim against a former employer. Contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today if you have any questions or need immediate legal assistance.


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