A federal district court has recently ruled that a night-shift emergency dispatcher with diabetes and hypertension, whose doctor stated that his health would be improved by working day shifts, could proceed on his claim that his employer’s refusal to allow him to work day shifts violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Szarawara v. County of Montgomery, No. 12-5714 (June 27, 2013). In denying the employer’s motion to dismiss at the initial stage of the litigation, the court rejected the argument that language in a job description requiring employees to be able to work “various shifts” made working the night shift an essential function of the job. In addition, the court refused to accept the employer’s argument that the employee should have tried other ways to improve his condition before seeking to change his night-shift schedule.

James Szarawara, an emergency dispatcher for the County of Montgomery, Pennsylvania, suffered from headaches, dizziness, and loss of focus, all of which affected his work performance. After receiving three disciplinary warnings, Szarawara told his manager that he believed that his performance problems were caused by his diabetes and hypertension. He provided documentation showing that his doctor had prescribed “proper sleep patterns,” which would include “working during daytime hours.”

As an alternative to Szarawara’s request for day-shift hours, the county suggested unpaid medical leave, which Szarawara declined. Szarawara suggested that he would accept part-time night-shift employment, or a transfer to a lower paying day-shift job, but the county refused to make either change. Szarawara resigned from his night-shift dispatcher position, believing it to be in the best interest of his health. He ultimately brought a federal court action against the county under the ADA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), which the county moved to dismiss. 

Szarawara claimed that he could have performed all of the essential functions of his job if he had been permitted to work day shifts. In response, the county argued that a request to move to the day-shift was unreasonable because working night shifts was an essential function of the dispatcher’s job. The court disagreed, noting that the job description simply required working “various shifts” and “rotating schedules.” It contained no language that rendered working night shifts an essential function of the dispatcher’s job. That lack of more specific language created a factual issue that precluded dismissal of the ADA claim at the initial stage of the litigation.

The court also pointed out that the language of the doctor’s note, which seemed to put the onus of improvements in Szarawara’s health primarily on Szarawara, did not relieve the county of its obligations under the ADA. Although Szarawara’s doctor stated that “other changes” in lifestyle would improve Szarawara’s condition, the court specifically held that an employee is not required to exhaust all other possible methods of mitigating the effects of an alleged disability before requesting an accommodation from his employer. The motion to dismiss was denied on Szarawara’s ADA accommodation claim.

The court made two additional holdings that are noteworthy. First, the court found that Szarawara’s “regarded as” disabled claim, which also alleged a failure to accommodate, was not a cognizable claim under the ADA because the 2008 amendments to the ADA (known as the “ADAAA”) do not require accommodation for an individual who meets the definition of “disability” solely because he is regarded as disabled.

Second, the court dismissed Szarawara’s PHRA failure to accommodate claim. It did so on the basis that the PHRA has not expanded the definition of “disability” in a way similar to the expansion of that term under the ADA/ADAAA. Szarawara’s general allegation that he suffered from “headaches, dizziness, and loss of focus,” which led to discipline at work, was insufficient to allow an assessment of the magnitude of the limitation he faced in a major life activity. The court dismissed Szarawara’s claim under the PHRA.

This case is a wake-up call to employers who have not recently reviewed their written job descriptions. As evidenced by the court’s analysis of Szarawara’s claims, a vague or general statement regarding the functions, requirements, or limitations on job duties may not be interpreted by the court to create an “essential function” of the position. Functions should be described completely and objectively, and in enough detail to support an argument related to the functions’ importance to the overall job duties.