Job descriptions continue to be critical in defending against disability claims

Courtroom

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment on behalf of the employer in a case where the employee claimed that the requirement to be a Department of Transportation-certified driver was not an essential function of his position.

David Hawkins was facilities supervisor for Schwan’s Home Service. His primary job duties were to order products to be delivered by delivery drivers, scheduling, and loading trucks with products. His job description contained a “Duties and Responsibilities” section that included fleet management but did not identify “driving” as an essential function of the position. It was the employer’s position that fleet management included driving company trucks to service appointments as well as shuttling trucks to salespeople to ensure deliveries. Hawkins was thus required to be DOT-qualified and have a Medical Examiner’s Certificate.

Hawkins suffered from several problematic health conditions and suffered a minor stroke. He subsequently failed a routine DOT medical evaluation and thus did not receive the medical certification required of all facility supervisors. The company placed him on a 30-day unpaid leave to allow him to obtain the certification or to find a non-DOT job position. After failing to obtain the certification and not apply for any jobs, his employment ended. Hawkins subsequently filed suit contending that his employer terminated him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A key issue considered by the court on appeal was whether driving DOT-regulated trucks was an essential function of his job position. In determining that it was, the court placed considerable reliance on the job description. The court pointed out the job description (which was created prior to Hawkins accepting the position) contemplated fleet management, DOT certification, and an excellent driving record. On appeal, Hawkins contended that the job descriptions failed to invoke the word “driving.” The court, however, found that the job description could be viewed through a “broad lens,” considering all relevant circumstances of the position.

While the employer at issue was able to dodge this bullet, care should be taken to include all essential functions of a job position in the job description. Had the job description for the facilities supervisor merely set forth that DOT certification and driving was a requirement, it would have had a much easier path to defend its termination decision. Employers should take care in drafting accurate job descriptions which should be reviewed on an annual basis. These can be critical in defending employment decisions where an employee cannot or is not effectively carrying out their job duties and responsibilities.

Hawkins v. Schwan’s Home Service, Case No. 13-6149 (10th Circuit 2015)