On 1/17/17, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision affirming summary judgment for an employer in an ADA discrimination case, relying heavily on the employer’s written job description of essential job functions. The employee was a relief foreman in a manufacturing plant, and he developed limitations in his knee from a medical condition that restricted his range of movement.   The job description for relief foreman required the foreman to be “qualified in all lower operator levels.”  The employee argued that he was “qualified” to operate a forklift (this was his original job before he was promoted) even though he was not actually “able” to operate forklift because of his restricted movement, and that being “able” to operate forklift was not an essential job function. The employer argued that it was also an essential function of his job that he be “able” to operate the forklift.  The case is Wickware v. Johns Manville (10th Cir. 1/17/17).

Deference to job descriptionsThe case has some significant – and comforting -- language for employers. First, the court affirmed the principle that the essential function inquiry “is not intended to second-guess the employer.”  The court commented that so long as a necessary job specification is job-related, uniformly enforced, and consistent with business necessity, the employer “has a right” to establish what a job is and what is required to perform it. Second, the court concluded that an employer could prove that a task was an essential function even if it was not expressly in the written job description. Third, the court confirmed that even if a responsibility was not originally an essential job function, employers have the prerogative to change essential functions.   

Rejection of affidavits contradicting job description. Another interesting aspect of this case is that the employee submitted affidavits from four co-workers who stated that the actual ability to perform operator jobs was not, in fact, enforced as a an essential function of the job of relief foreman. The court affirmed the district court’s rejection of these affidavits. The court commented that affidavits must be based on personal knowledge and must show that the affiant is competent to testify on the matters. The court rejected as “bald assertions” statements in an affidavit by one co-worker that another foreman did not actually know how to run one of the machines and, therefore, was not able to do so, commenting that the affiant provided “no factual basis for this belief.”

Lessons for employers? This is one of many ADA accommodation cases in which courts have deferred to an employer that has a detailed written job description addressing essential functions.  Indeed, the court was willing to give some leeway to the employer, and allow it to supplement the written job description with testimony to cover what may have been incomplete wording in the job description.  And, the court made clear that employers have the right to change essential job functions.   This decision is a pleasant reminder that employers can help limit ADA liability by reviewing and refining their job descriptions through the lens of potential ADA claims.