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Eleventh Circuit Weighs In On Essential Job Functions

file1581270826885The Eleventh Circuit recently provided insight as to how federal courts analyze disability discrimination law claims when it held that firing a truck driver because he was diagnosed with alcoholism is not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Title I of the ADA grants certain protections to disabled individuals who are qualified to perform a job’s basic functions from discrimination in employment.

Alcoholism is a disability under the ADA, but the question of whether or not an alcoholic can seek the ADA’s protection doesn’t end there: employers are not always obligated to retain workers who suffer from a condition that is recognized as a disability under the ADA.

An employer can lawfully fire or refuse to hire some one who was diagnosed with alcoholism if he or she can show that a person wasn’t otherwise qualified for a particular job, or that employing that person would create a direct safety risk to others.

This case serves as an important reminder of when employees can state a claim for employment discrimination under the Act. As underscored in the majority’s opinion, an individual is not necessarily entitled to protection from undesirable employment actions like termination or demotion simply because that person suffers from a disability. Rather, the ADA’s section on employment covers only disabled individuals who are otherwise qualified for a job, meaning that they can fulfill its essential functions.

The debate in many employment discrimination cases therefore centers on determining what the essential functions of a job are. Although there is no clear-cut rule for this analysis, courts find evidence of essential functions of a job in things like official job descriptions, industry standards and norms, and job listings. Importantly, courts will defer to employers’ determinations of whether or not an individual is otherwise qualified for a job with or without a reasonable accommodation, on the rationale that employers may be better equipped to make this kind of assessment due to their experience within a particular field or industry than the Court.

In the case before the Eleventh Circuit, the defense argued—and the Court agreed— that having a current diagnosis of being an alcoholic, even if in treatment, prohibits someone from fulfilling the essential functions of truck driving, which includes driving and being certified to drive by the Department of Transportation.

In determining whether a job function is essential, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency that enforces the ADA in the employment context and other employment discrimination laws) looks at these factors:

  • the employer’s assessment of which functions are essential, as demonstrated by job descriptions written before the employer posts or advertises for the position
  • whether the position exists to perform that function (if the entire job consists of one function, such as loading and unloading boxes or entering information into a database, then than function is essential)
  • the experience of employees who actually hold that position
  • the time spent performing the function
  • the consequences of not performing the function
  • whether other employees are available to perform the function, and the degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.

If you were fired, demoted, or otherwise discriminated against in a job relating to an actual, past, or perceived disability, you may have a case of disability discrimination under the ADA. For a consultation, please call us at (703) 791-9087 or visit our web site at

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