The rarity with which a particular job function is performed does not render it non-essential under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, has held in an unpublished decision. Wardia v. Department of Juvenile Justice, No. 12-5337 (6th Cir. Jan. 3, 2013). The Court affirmed summary judgment for the employer, a correctional facility with safety concerns, which argued the function of performing physical restraints, even though not frequently performed, is an “essential job requirement” under the ADA. The employer also was not required to convert a temporary light duty position into a permanent job for a disabled correctional officer, it added.

Background

John Wardia worked as a Youth Worker at the Campbell County Regional Juvenile Detention Center. The main function of a Youth Worker is to “supervise[] and monitor[] activities of juveniles committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice.” A Youth Worker also must able to perform physical restraints, if necessary. During his employment, Wardia suffered a neck injury that prevented him from performing physical restraints. He initially asked for, and received, a temporary accommodation working in the Center’s control room (a light-duty, rotating position where employees watch the facility monitors, let people in and out of the building, and document any movements).

Wardia eventually underwent surgery for his neck injury, but that did not relieve the limitation on performing physical restraints. He returned to his assignment in the control room. Wardia’s supervisors were under the impression that he would be able to return to full duty. Wardia’s physician subsequently informed the Center that his disability was permanent. He then was placed on a one-year disability leave, to be considered as having resigned one year later. Two weeks before expiration of his leave, Wardia requested permanent reassignment to the control room to accommodate his disability. The Center declined Wardia’s request and he was deemed resigned from his job at the end of his leave.

Wardia sued the Center for failure to accommodate his physical disability in violation of the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Center, finding the ability to perform physical restraints was an essential job function and the ADA did not require the Center to reassign Wardia to the control room on a permanent basis as an accommodation. Wardia appealed.

Issue Involved

The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability must be able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

Since the evidence showed that Wardia could not perform the physical restraints normally required for the job, with or without reasonable accommodation, the issue was whether the ability to perform physical restraints was an essential job function.

Attempt to Redefine Rare Job Function as Non-Essential

Wardia argued that physical restraints were too rare to be considered an essential job function and that they were “optional” in practice because weaker employees often were relieved from performing them by their stronger coworkers. Wardia also argued that the Center could have accommodated his disability by having a coworker perform physical restraints whenever the need arose or by reassigning him permanently to the control room. The Court rejected Wardia’s arguments.

The Court first rejected as “incorrect” Wardia’s rarity argument because the potential for physical confrontation existed daily in the facility. Further, the Court observed, the rarity of the need for physical restraints did not render the function non-essential because the inability to properly restrain juveniles could have serious consequences for the safety of staff and juveniles at the facility. If the Center did not mandate safe-physical-management skills for its staff, the Court pointed out, it could be subject to liability from injured employees and juveniles, as well.

The Court next determined Wardia’s proposed accommodations — requiring another worker to perform restraints for him, in particular — were not reasonable. “[T]he ADA does not require employers to accommodate individuals by shifting an essential job function onto others,” it determined. The Court concluded that any other rule would render the essential-function step of an ADA analysis “meaningless.”

Reassignment to the control room also was not reasonable, the Court held, because the ADA does not require employers to convert a temporary position into a permanent one. To do so, it explained, would “frustrate the purposes of the ADA: if employers are locked into extending temporary positions for injured workers on a permanent basis (whether initially granted consistent with company policy or as a well-intentioned special arrangement), they might well be less inclined to permit such an arrangement in the first place.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed summary judgment in the employer’s favor.

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“The importance of a job function, including the possible serious consequences of not being able to perform it, sometimes will outweigh the infrequency of its performance in assessing whether it is essential under the ADA,” said Joe Lynett, Partner in the Disability, Leave and Health Management Practice Group.