Detailed Job Descriptions are Crucial in Defending Disability Discrimination Claims

A recent decision of the Sixth Circuit shows the importance of maintaining accurate, updated job descriptions for employees. In Henschel v. Clare County Road Commission, 6th Cir. No. 13-1528 (Dec. 13, 2013), the plaintiff was working as an excavator operator for a county road commission when he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. When the plaintiff was not allowed to return to work, he filed suit alleging that the county discriminated against him because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the county, finding that hauling the excavator to the work site was an essential function of the position, and that the plaintiff was unable to do so because he could not drive a manual transmission semi-truck. The district court also held that reassigning the plaintiff to a different position was not a reasonable accommodation.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling that hauling the excavator was an essential function the plaintiff’s position. The key to the court’s ruling was that the county’s job description for the excavator operator position did not include hauling the excavator. Rather, this duty was listed on the job description for a different position (truck driver). The court also relied on testimony suggesting that hauling the excavator did not take much of the plaintiff’s time and other employees could have hauled the excavator without issue. However, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that reassigning the plaintiff to a different position was not a reasonable accommodation. The court noted that transferring the employee would have required the employee to violate the terms of his union’s collective bargaining agreement with the county or required the county to recreate a new position for the plaintiff.  These scenarios were not “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA as a matter of law.

The takeaway for this case is that it is important for employers to keep accurate job descriptions for their employees. The descriptions should clearly and concisely state each of the employee’s responsibilities. It doesn’t need to read like War and Peace, but the job description should not leave any ambiguity regarding the employees’ essential functions. Further, revisit the description periodically and revise them if necessary. Doing so will be valuable in defending future ADA claims by employees.

Contact: Nathan Pangrace


Federal Court Rules that Class Waivers Do Not Necessarily Violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”)

In D.R. Horton v. National Labor Relations Board, 2013-WL-6231617 (5th Cir.), the federal Fifth Circuit court of appeals held that an employer could enforce a compelled arbitration agreement that prohibits an employee from initiating a class or collective action involving multiple other plaintiffs against his employer. The court overruled the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), which held that upholding such an agreement would restrict the protected rights of employees to engage in concerted activity. (See “Recent NLRB Ruling Prohibits Employers from Requiring Employees to Sign Arbitration Agreements that Forbid the Collective Pursuit of Employment-Related Claims,” January 9, 2012.) The Fifth Circuit disagreed and held that the Federal Arbitration Act and its allowance of arbitration agreements containing class waivers does not in and of itself conflict with worker protections under the NLRA. The court also noted that the other federal circuits that have addressed this issue (the Ninth, Second, and Eighth) have also taken a position similar to the Fifth Circuit’s.

This case is especially important when considering the increased number of wage and hour claims filed both under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and comparable state wage and hour laws. A common practice of plaintiffs’ attorneys upon meeting a potential client regarding an employment issue is to ask them how they are compensated, especially when it comes to overtime payments. Wage and hour laws can be complicated, and many employers who have not sought legal advice on their policies may not be in full compliance. Wage and hour claims may therefore be tacked on to other employment claims that plaintiffs have, and the potential for multiple plaintiffs in these types of claims can expose employers to increased financial liability. The best practice is to have an experienced attorney review employment policies to determine whether they comply with applicable law, and what actions, such as class waivers, may also aid in limiting employer exposure to suit.  

Contact: Shawn Romer