Why it matters

Where overtime was an essential job function, the inability to work the extra hours doomed a plaintiff’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit, a federal court in Texas recently ruled. A delivery specialist for Wright Medical Technology, Quentin Jiles was injured in an automobile accident while on the job. When he returned to work, his physician indicated that he could not work overtime or in heat above 90 degrees. The employer refused to allow him to return and then terminated Jiles after concluding it could not accommodate his restrictions. Jiles filed suit alleging violations of the ADA, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Texas state law. Reviewing case law, the Texas federal judge determined that overtime can be an essential job function. Although there was some evidence to support Jiles’ claims of disability discrimination and retaliation based on his medical condition and use of leave, the court found that his inability to work overtime made it impossible for him to prevail on his claims, granting summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Detailed discussion

As a delivery specialist for Wright Medical Technology (WMT), Quentin Jiles made pickups and deliveries of medical implants and instruments to and from hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics in the Houston area. In April 2014, Jiles was involved in an automobile accident while working. After a physician determined he suffered a cervical strain on his shoulder, Jiles took several weeks of leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

After returning to work, he visited his own doctor, who determined he had high blood pressure and needed rest for two weeks. Jiles extended his leave until August, when he informed WMT that he was ready to return to work. His doctor cleared him to return, albeit with two restrictions: Jiles could not work overtime or in heat of more than 90 degrees or below 32 degrees. Given that the written description for delivery specialists included the need to work overtime and the fact it was August in Houston—with temperatures routinely in the 90s—WMT did not permit Jiles to return to work.

The employer terminated Jiles, finding no position in a climate-controlled environment that did not require overtime. Jiles filed suit in response, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), FMLA and Texas state law.

WMT filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Jiles could not state a claim under the ADA because he could not safely perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations, nor could he meet his prima facie burden for his FMLA or state law claims.

U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller first considered whether overtime or working outdoors in certain temperatures can be an essential job function. Citing decisions from Texas federal court as well as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Eleventh Circuits, the court agreed with the employer that both requirements can be essential functions on a case-by-case basis.

“These cases make clear that (1) overtime can be an essential function of a job; (2) working outdoors or exposure to extreme temperatures can be an essential function of a job; (3) courts consider the written job description as an important factor in determining essential functions; (4) courts consider the actual duties of the plaintiff and others performing the job to be an important factor in determining essential functions; and (5) the employer may clarify restrictions with a physician; but (6) courts should avoid allowing after-the-fact characterizations of the restrictions to impact the analysis,” the court said.

With this guidance in hand, the court turned to the most important factor: whether the employer considers the restricted function to be essential. Between the written job description, a letter sent to Jiles before he was hired and a declaration from a human resources representative that all stated overtime was required, as well as the fact Jiles regularly worked overtime before he was injured, the court was convinced. “This evidence, taken together, would indicate to any reasonable juror that WMT believed … overtime was required,” the court said.

A question of fact remained with regard to temperatures, however. All the parties seemed to agree that it is hot in Houston in August, but the court was unable to draw any conclusions about the requirement of working in such temperatures.

However, given that the “balance of factors weighs so heavily in WMT’s favor that no reasonable juror could conclude that overtime was not an essential function of the delivery specialist job,” Jiles failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, the court said. “Because Jiles’s physician restricted him from performing one of the essential functions of his job—overtime—the court concludes that Jiles was not ‘qualified’ for the job under the ADA.”

Judge Miller also rejected Jiles’s claim of failure to accommodate under the ADA. Despite the plaintiff’s contention that the interactive process was “a joke,” and his argument that WMT could have provided several accommodations (a handheld fan, mesh uniform or warehouse work, for example), the court held that the ADA does not require an employer to modify the essential functions of an employee’s position or create a new position for him.

“If Jiles were to continue as a delivery specialist, WMT would have had to assign all overtime to the other drivers to conform with Jiles’s medical restrictions, and it is not required to transfer the disabled employee’s responsibilities that are essential functions to other employees,” the court wrote. As Jiles failed to provide any suggested accommodation for not being able to work overtime, he failed to meet his burden, the court said, granting the motion to dismiss the ADA claim.

For similar reasons, the court likewise granted the motion to dismiss Jiles’s FMLA and state law claims, despite evidence that his supervisors were unhappy about his leave. “Notwithstanding the statements by Jiles’s supervisor and hubmanager and the perceived lack of empathy by [human resources] that lead to an inference of discriminatory motive, WMT has presented sufficient evidence to show that it would have terminated Jiles’s employment anyway because he could not perform the essential functions of his job,” Judge Miller said.

The court dismissed all the plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.

To read the memorandum opinion and order in Jiles v. Wright Medical Technology, Inc., click here.