Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA Do Not Require Changing a Job's Essential Functions

by Akerman LLP - HR Defense

Weldon Williams, a pharmacist, suffered from diabetes which limited his ability to stand for extended periods of time. Williams sued his former employer Revco Discount Drug Centers, Inc., d/b/a CVS Pharmacy, Inc. ("CVS") alleging that CVS failed to accommodate his requests for an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Williams "acknowledged that his position involved extended standing over the course of an eight-hour shift and frequent movement around the pharmacy," which CVS argued were essential functions of his job. The accommodation Williams requested would have required CVS to hire a fulltime pharmacy technician to assist him when his disability prevented him from performing his job duties.

In the case of Williams v. Revco Disc. Drug Centers, Inc., 552 Fed. Appx. 919, 920 (11th Cir. 2014) cert. denied, 83 USLW 3005 (U.S. 2014), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. District Court's ruling which held that CVS was not required to modify the essential functions of Williams's job to comply with the ADA's requirement that employers provide a "reasonable accommodation" to qualified individuals with a disability. The court noted that to succeed on a claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove that: (1) he or she is disabled; (2) he or she is a "qualified individual;" and (3) he or she was subjected to unlawful discrimination because of his disability. To be considered a "qualified individual," the plaintiff must "show that he can perform the essential functions of his position with or without reasonable accommodations." Courts will look to a variety of factors in determining whether a job requirement is an "essential function" of the position including (but not limited to): a) what the employer believes to be the essential functions; (b) written job descriptions for the position; (c) the amount of time spent performing a specific function; and (d) the "consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function."

Such a determination is made on a case-by-case basis and there are no hard and fast rules. However, the employee has the burden of identifying the accommodation sought, which is not considered reasonable if it would cause an undue hardship on the employer. This was a burden Williams simply could not meet, especially because he "admitted that his physician never submitted any paperwork outlining the types of accommodations that [he] might require."

Williams sought "certiorari" of the Eleventh Circuit's ruling, which is a petition to the Supreme Court requesting review of an appellate court decision. On October 6, 2014, the Supreme Court denied Williams' petition.

While a victory for employers who abide by the ADA's requirement, the Williams case reminds us of the complexities of this law. While the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the employer here, the court's opinion also underscored the importance of the "interactive process" employers are required to undertake to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. While this process may be informal, it must "identify the employee's limitations and any possible accommodations." Involving experienced H.R. professionals early in the process is a must, and consultation with labor and employment counsel is advisable if there are any questions as to whether a job function is "essential," if an employee is "qualified," or if an accommodation is "reasonable," under the ADA.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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