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Second Circuit Reinforces Rights of Workers with Disabilities

The Second Circuit recently reaffirmed the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). As a general rule, individuals with disabilities are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” so long as they can perform the “essential functions” of their job. For example, if someone who is blind is a great computer programmer — and can do all the things computer programmers can do, so long as he has a minor accommodation (like a text-to-voice software) — then he is protected by the ADA.

Employers often like to claim that virtually everything an employee does is an “essential function” of their job. However, courts are not so quick to take the employer’s version of events. In determining whether something truly is an “essential function,” the courts look to job descriptions as well as the actual circumstances of the person’s employment. Simply saying that something is “essential” after being sued isn’t sufficient to get an employer off the hook in a  disability discrimination lawsuit. As the Second Circuit quoted,  ”A court must avoid deciding cases based on unthinking reliance on intuition about the methods by which jobs are to be performed.”

In the case McMillan v. City of New York, the employee worked for the City of New York for 25 years, despite suffering from schizophrenia. His condition was manageable so long as he took medication. However, the medication made him drowsy in the mornings and thus made it difficult for him to arrive to work on time. The question was then — is arriving to work on time an essential function of McMillan’s job? If he’s allowed to come in at 11:00 sometimes (i.e., if he receives this reasonable accommodation), then is he still performing the essential duties of his job?

The lower court held that, because McMillan’s disability prevented him from coming to work on time, he was not able to perform the essential functions of his job. However, the Second Circuit reversed, telling the lower court that it had to look at the facts more closely. In this situation, the City had a “flex time” system, whereby workers could come in somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00, and aren’t considered “late” unless they arrive after 10:15. So, if workers have a one-hour window of discretion in deciding when to get to work, is being on time really an “essential function” of their job? Moreover, McMillan’s “lateness” extended only to about 11:00, making him only 45 minutes later than the official cut off time. Also, he would make up the work later in the day, to ensure that he was putting in as much time as he was required.

Of course, the case is not over. The lower court was ordered to reconsider the question of “essential functions” in light of the circumstances of the case. However, the Second Circuit did reaffirm that courts can’t just take an employer’s word about what job duties are “essential.”  While it might be nice to have all workers show up at 10:15 every day, if it’s not necessary for the job to be performed properly, it shouldn’t prevent otherwise qualified individuals from getting a job just because they have a disability.