Good employers often attempt to provide support for employees who are facing personal issues. Such was the case when Selena Hancock developed a nerve condition that prevented her from lifting more than 20 pounds. Although an essential function of Hancock's position as a medical assistant at the Washington Hospital Center (WHC) was triaging patients — preparing patients for physician examinations, escorting patients to the exam room, and taking and recording patients' information in their charts — WHC agreed to place her on modified duty and temporarily excused her from performing triage. Eventually, WHC required Hancock to return to full duty while she was still unable to perform triage and subsequently terminated her on the basis that she was unable to perform an essential function of her job.
Hancock thereafter sued WHC under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the hospital failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. Hancock argued she was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA because she performed the essential functions of a medical assistant with an accommodation of no triage. She also asserted that the hospital had modified her job description in granting her the temporary accommodation, thereby allowing her to perform all the functions of her position.
A District Court disagreed with Hancock’s interpretation of the law, ruling that WHC did not waive the essential function of the job defense to an ADA claim by temporarily eliminating the triage function. Furthermore, case law overwhelmingly holds that an employee who cannot perform an essential function is not a qualified individual under the ADA. Neither party disputed whether triage was an essential function of Hancock's position or whether she was unable to perform triage due to her disability. As a result, the District Court held that Hancock was not a qualified individual within the meaning of the ADA because her request to eliminate triage from the essential functions of her position constituted an unreasonable accommodation.
While this case demonstrates that employers may grant temporary accommodations, it also highlights the importance of outlining essential functions in a job description as a defense to ADA claims. By understanding ADA requirements, management and HR employees will be prepared to handle reasonable accommodations and other disability-related issues.