Employer’s Judgment About What Constitutes an Essential Job Function Carries Substantial Weight

Is being licensed to drive a commercial vehicle an “essential function” of a warehouse manager’s position, even though that manager rarely is required to drive? According to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, that answer depends largely upon the job description developed by the employer and not on the employee’s specific personal experience in the job. Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-2240, (April 3, 2013).

Jeffrey D. Knutson was employed as a Local General Manager (LGM) of a depot for Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. from 2007 until 2009, when his employment was terminated. That termination was based on the fact that Knutson was no longer able to meet the physical standards set forth in the job description for his position. Although Knutson sued Schwan’s under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), both the district court and the Eighth Circuit determined that Knutson was not qualified for protection under the ADA because he was unable to fulfill the essential functions of his job under any circumstances.

During his employment with Schwan’s, Knutson excelled at his job as an LGM. The position description for that job specifically states that LGMs must meet the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) eligibility requirements, which require such individuals to be “DOT-qualified” to drive commercial motor vehicles. However, Knutson had driven a truck “less than 50 [times]” since becoming a manager in 2007.

In March 2008, Knutson suffered a serious eye injury, after which he was unable to obtain the medical waiver necessary to qualify him for the required DOT certification. Because of that fact, Schwan’s placed Knutson on a 30-day leave of absence to either obtain the required certification or find a non-DOT-qualified position within the company. Knutson was unable to do either within that 30-day period and was discharged from his job. Knutson filed a lawsuit, claiming that he was qualified as disabled under the ADA, which prohibits discrimination against an individual who is able to undertake the essential functions of his or her position, with or without an accommodation. The lower court dismissed Knutson’s claim, finding that the requirement to hold a commercial driver’s license is an essential function of the manager’s position. Because Knutson could not perform that essential function under any circumstance, he was not qualified for protection under the ADA. That decision was upheld by the Eighth Circuit.

Knutson claimed that being DOT-qualified to drive a delivery truck was not essential to his job because he rarely drove a commercial vehicle. However, the Eighth Circuit pointed out that under the ADA, an employer’s judgment about what constitutes an essential function is “highly probative.” In this case, the description for the LGM position specifically required a commercial driver’s license. While managers do not necessarily drive delivery trucks every day or even every week they are required to be able to drive those trucks when needed and, on occasion, must step in and take over a route when a driver is absent. Schwan’s was able to show that if managers did not drive trucks, less product would be delivered and less driver training would be provided, affecting sales. Based on that information, the court determined that although Knutson claimed to have driven trucks infrequently, Knutson’s specific experience “is of no consequence in the essential functions equation.” Instead, in determining the essential functions of the LGM position, the court relied on the written job description, the company’s judgment, and the experiences of all LGMs and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the company.

This case underscores the importance of clear, complete, and up-to-date job descriptions and documentation of business-related reasons for decisions affecting employees. In this case, the court’s determination was influenced by the fact that the company consistently had documented and enforced the DOT-related requirements for its LGMs and further was able to proffer evidence showing that the essential function was directly related to financial elements of the business’s success.