Holding that full-time presence at the workplace is not always an essential job function, on July 17, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) failure to accommodate case. The decision in Hostettler v. College of Wooster1 undermines the deference often afforded to employers in determining whether a particular function is an “essential” job function. Moreover, it appears to eliminate—at least within the Sixth Circuit—the argument that an accommodation permitting an employee to work less than full-time hours in a full-time position is per se unreasonable.

Background

The College of Wooster hired Plaintiff Heidi Hostettler as a HR Generalist in its Human Resource Department. At the time of her hire, Hostettler was pregnant and disclosed her pregnancy and plans for maternity leave to Wooster. Wooster provided Hostettler with 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) pursuant to the college’s policy, though she did not meet eligibility requirements. Following her leave, Hostettler was scheduled to return to work in late April. As she approached the end of her leave, Hostettler informed Wooster she was experiencing severe postpartum depression and separation anxiety. She submitted documentation confirming her diagnosis and her need for additional leave time. That request was granted by Wooster, along with a reduced work schedule accommodation upon her return to work. Hostettler’s treater advised that she needed to work part-time for the “foreseeable future” and likely for the next two-six months. Hostettler had no other restrictions.

The parties disagreed over what occurred during the two months between Hostettler’s return to work in May and her termination in July. Hostettler contended she handled all of her job duties without issue. Wooster countered that Hostettler did not complete all of her critical job functions and that the HR Department was severely understaffed due to her reduced schedule. Wooster argued that the situation was compounded due to another employee’s leave of absence and the fact that the Department was preparing for a time-intensive benefits project. Hostettler’s supervisor testified that the situation was overwhelming and Hostettler’s absence was putting a strain on the entire Department.

Hostettler and her supervisor had four meetings after she returned to work and before her termination. Hostettler claimed that during the meetings she received positive feedback and there was no mention of her return to work full-time, although she offered to extend her part-time schedule to work until 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. in preparation for returning to a full-time schedule. Wooster claims that, during each of those meetings, Hostettler’s supervisor advised her that she needed to return to work full-time.

In mid-July, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification stating she “might” be able to return to full-time employment at the beginning of September. Hostettler alleged she advised her supervisor again that she was willing to work extended hours, from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., but her supervisor never responded. The day after submitting her updated documentation, Wooster terminated Hostettler. The termination decision was premised on Hostettler’s medical certification, which required that she continue to work part-time in conflict with Wooster’s assertion that the HR Generalist position was a full-time job.

Hostettler filed suit alleging violations of the ADA, the FMLA, and Chapter 4112 of the Ohio Revised Code. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Wooster on all counts. Regarding Hostettler’s ADA failure to accommodate claim, the trial court concluded that she failed to establish a prima facie case because she could not meet an essential function of the position—working 40 hours per week—and was not otherwise qualified for the job.

The Sixth Circuit’s Opinion

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed on all claims. The Court found that Hostettler’s ADA claim should be analyzed under the direct method of proof and not the familiar burden shifting framework. In doing so, the Court noted that the direct test was the proper analysis when an employer rescinds an already granted accommodation, finding that in such circumstances it is clear that the disability was at least a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.

Applying the direct test, the Court viewed whether Hostettler was “otherwise qualified” for her HR Generalist position as the crux of the case. Here, the Court concluded that whether Hostettler could complete the essential functions of her position on a modified schedule was a question of fact for a jury to decide. In reaching this outcome, the Court addressed its prior holdings, particularly the decision in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc), that “‘[r]egular, in-person attendance is an essential function of most jobs.” Distinguishing Ford, the Court noted that the analysis regarding whether a job function is truly essential is “highly fact specific” and courts must consider all the evidence such as the amount of time spent on the job function, the employer’s judgment, written job descriptions, and consequences for not performing the job function. However, the Court cautioned that the employer’s judgment “is not the end-all—especially when an employee puts forth competing evidence.”2 Ultimately, the Court found that “full-time presence at work is not an essential function of a job simply because an employer says it is.”

The Court rejected the district court’s analysis, which relied on the written job description, the fact that Hostettler worked 40 hours prior to her leave, and Hostettler’s own statements that she wanted to work full-time, finding these factors did not necessitate finding that full-time hours was an essential job function as a matter of law. Wooster presented evidence that the HR Department was suffering based on Hostettler’s part-time schedule, but Hostettler set forth enough evidence to create an issue of fact.3 Specifically, the Sixth Circuit relied on Hostettler’s testimony that she believed she completed her “core” job functions on a modified schedule and on an affidavit submitted by another HR employee corroborating that Hostettler was handling all of her job functions satisfactorily. The Court also relied on Hostettler’s performance review, administered to her after she returned from leave and while she was working a reduced schedule, which was positive overall and neither addressed any issues relating to her work schedule nor stated that she needed to work full-time.

At the heart of its decision, the Sixth Circuit held that “on its own . . . full-time presence at work is not an essential function” and “an employer must tie time-and-presence requirements to some other job requirement.” The Court found that “[a]n employer cannot deny a modified work schedule as unreasonable unless the employer can show why the employee is needed on a full-time schedule; merely stating that anything less than full-time employment is per se unreasonable will not relieve an employer of its ADA requirements.”

The Significance of this Case

Under the ADA, when an employee requests a reduced schedule as an accommodation, an employer must conduct a detailed analysis to determine whether the requested accommodation would be reasonable or whether it would eliminate an essential job function. In light of Hostettler, it is even more important for an employer to critically assess whether the function at issue truly is “essential.” Merely including the function on a job description likely will not pass muster, nor will general testimony from management stating the job requires full-time presence. Also, in determining whether a requested accommodation is unreasonable because it eliminates an essential job function, employers should strive to contemporaneously document and explain that position, as courts presumably will require affirmative proof that the function is in fact “essential.” As highlighted by this decision, accommodations in the form of extended leaves of absence or reduced work schedules routinely present compliance and administrative challenges requiring careful handling.