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Employment Law Blog
James Tarquin, P.A
As part of our commitment to assist and educate employees in fighting back against the abusive employment practices of employers, we offer a broad range of information about employment law issues in our employment blog

Must An Employee Be Able To Work Full-Time To Be Protected By The Americans With Disabilities Act?

Blocks that read schedule in regards to part-time work

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  The ADA defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual.”  Prohibited discrimination under the ADA includes not making reasonable accommodations for a qualified individual with a disability.  Reasonable accommodations under the ADA include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, telework, and reassignment to a vacant position. Read on to learn if part-time employees are protected by the ADA. 

The ADA defines a “qualified individual with a disability” as “an individual with a disability who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the position that such individual holds or desires.”  This means that if an individual cannot show that he or she is able to “perform the essential functions” of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, then he or she is not a “qualified individual with a disability” and is not protected from disability discrimination by the ADA.  Under the ADA, the essential functions of a job are the core job duties, not the marginal job duties.

How Employers Try To Defeat ADA Claims

Having represented victims of disability discrimination for almost twenty years, our Alachua County, Florida disability discrimination attorneys have learned that employers often defend ADA cases by claiming that full-time work is an essential function of the job and the employee is not a qualified individual with a disability because he or she is unable to work full-time.  In other words, employers argue that the employee is not protected from disability discrimination by the ADA because he or she cannot perform the essential function of full-time work.  Unfortunately, many courts thwart the protections of the ADA by rubber-stamping employers’ claims that full-time work is an essential function of the job and summarily dismissing ADA cases.  The recent decision by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hostettler v. College of Wooster, No. 17-3406 (6th Cir. 2018) illustrates that not all courts are willing to accept that full-time work is an essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is.

Employee Seeks Modified Work Schedule

In that case, Heidi Hostettler (Hostettler) brought an ADA action against her former employer, the College of Wooster (Wooster), claiming that she was discriminated against on the basis of disability in violation of the ADA.  Hostettler was hired as an HR Generalist by Wooster.  When she was interviewed for and took the position, Hostettler was four-months pregnant.  When she discussed maternity leave with Wooster’s human resources department, Hostettler was told they would be willing to accommodate her pregnancy.  Wooster’s official policy was to allow new employees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) even if they did not otherwise qualify for leave under the FMLA.

While she was on maternity leave, Hostettler was diagnosed with postpartum depression and separation anxiety.  Hostettler’s doctor testified that “she had one of the worst cases of separation anxiety” that he had ever seen.  Hostettler’s doctor also thought it would be a bad idea for her to return to work right away.  Hostettler’s doctor further believed that “it was medically necessary” for her to work a “reduced schedule” and suggested that Hostettler work on a part-time basis for “a month or two.”  Because of her doctor’s concerns, Hostettler did not return to work at the expiration of her 12-week maternity leave.

When Hostettler returned to work, her supervisor, Beasley, suggested that Hostettler work five half days a week.  For the next two months, Hostettler worked five half days a week.  Hostettler contended that even with the accommodated schedule, she was able to do everything required of her position.  Throughout Hostettler’s employment, there were no complaints about her work or conduct.  Beasley stated that Hostettler never failed to perform any duty or finish any assignment in a timely manner.

However, Beasley claimed that Hostettler’s modified schedule put a strain on her and the rest of the department.  Two weeks after returning from maternity leave, Hostettler submitted an updated medical certification from her doctor stating that she should continue to work part-time and estimated that she would be able to return to full-time work in about two months.  The next day, Beasley fired Hostettler.  Beasley sent Hostettler a letter stating that because her updated medical certification required her to work part-time, she was “unable to return to her assigned position of HR Generalist in a full-time capacity” and was being terminated.  Some three months later, Wooster hired a man to replace Hostettler.

Trial Court Rubber-Stamps Employer’s Assertion

The trial court dismissed Hostettler’s disability discrimination claim.  In doing so, the trial court rubber-stamped Wooster’s assertion that “full-time work was an essential function of the position of HR Generalist.”  The trial court held that because Hostettler could not satisfy that essential function or propose a reasonable accommodation that would allow her to meet that essential function, Hostettler was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.  On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated Hostettler’s disability discrimination claim.

Full-Time Work Not Essential Function Because Employer Says So

In condemning the trial court’s blind acceptance of Wooster’s assertion that full-time work was an essential function of the job without any factual or legal analysis, the Sixth Circuit stated that “full-time presence at work is not essential function of a job simply because an employer says that it is.”  “If it were otherwise,” the court of appeals reasoned, “employers could refuse an accommodation that left an employee at work for fewer than 40 hours per week.”  “That would mean denying leave for doctor’s appointments, dialysis, therapy, or anything else that requires time away from work.”  “Aside from being antithetical to the purpose of the ADA,” the Sixth Circuit observed, “it would also allow employers to negate the regulation that reasonable accommodations include leave or telework.”

Although “the employer’s judgment receives some weight” in determining whether full-time presence at work is an essential function of a position,” the Sixth Circuit explained, “it is not the end all-especially when an employee puts forth competing evidence.”  Applying this principle to the facts, the appellate court determined that Hostettler had presented sufficient evidence to establish that full-time presence at work was not essential function of the HR Generalist position.  In support of this conclusion, the appeals court pointed to evidence that Hostettler “satisfied all the core tasks of the position” and Wooster admitted that Hostettler “never failed to complete a task or meet a responsibility in a timely manner.”  Thus, the Sixth Circuit determined that whether full-time presence at work was an essential function of the HR Generalist position was an issue for the jury to resolve and not the court as a matter of law.

Free Consultation With Alachua County Labor Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida and representing employees throughout Central Florida, we have extensive experience litigating disability discrimination cases in federal and state court.  If you have been the victim of disability discrimination or have questions about whether full-time presence at work is an essential function of the job, please contact our office for a free consultation with our Alachua County, Florida disability discrimination attorneys.  Our employee rights law firm takes disability discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis.  This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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