The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently ruled in Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc., 2013 WL 1316314 (8th Cir. April 3, 2013) that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), because occasionally driving a delivery truck was an essential function of the job, Plaintiff Jeff Knutson’s inability to secure a DOT medical certificate following an eye injury disqualified him being able to perform the job.

Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. had employed Knutson as a Manager. The position description for that job required “Federal Department of Transportation eligibility,” which in turn, required “an appropriate driver’s license and a corresponding medical certification….” Further, Knutson’s conditional offer of employment required him to be “DOT Qualified” for trucks weighing over 10,000 pounds, stating that said offer was “expressly conditioned on meeting DOT and Company standards for a physical examination.”

In March 2008, Knutson suffered a penetrating eye injury, and by December of that year, an eye doctor refused to give Knutson a DOT “Medical Examiner’s Certificate” (“MEC”), which Knutson needed to be DOT qualified and, thus, to be able to continue to drive a delivery truck. On January 6, 2009, Schwan’s placed Knutson on a 30-day leave of absence so that he could either secure an MEC or a non-DOT-qualified job at the company. When Knutson failed to obtain either of these within the 30-day period, he was terminated. Knutson then filed suit, alleging discrimination under the ADA.

The court initially rejected Knutson’s first argument – that being DOT qualified to drive a delivery truck was not an “essential function” of the Manager position. The court reasoned in pertinent part that, while Managers such as Knutson “do not necessarily drive the delivery trucks every day or even every week, they are required, at the very least, to drive the vehicles from time to time.” The court also observed that Knutson had in fact driven a truck a number of times as part of his job. Therefore, the court held that being DOT qualified to drive a delivery truck was an essential function of Knutson’s position and, as a result, Knutson could not establish that he was “qualified” for the position.

The court also rejected Knutson’s second argument – that Schwan’s failed to grant him a reasonable accommodation or engage in the interactive process required by the ADA after he requested to work without being DOT qualified. First, the court held that, because “an accommodation is unreasonable if it requires the employer to eliminate an essential function of the job,” Knutson’s request to work without the DOT qualification was unreasonable on its face. Second, the court found that giving Knutson the option of applying for other positions at Schwan’s was both an attempt to accommodate him and concurrently qualified as good faith interactive dialogue as required under the ADA.

In sum, the Eighth Circuit confirmed that rarely performed duties can be essential functions of the job. This decision, however, should not be viewed as carte blanche to classify rarely-performed functions as essential duties. Instead, the duties must in fact be essential to the job, as described in 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n), which considers the following factors:

  • The employer’s judgment as to which functions are essential;
  • Written job descriptions prepared before advertising or interviewing applicants for the job;
  • The amount of time spent on the job performing the function;
  • The consequences of not requiring the incumbent to perform the function;
  • The terms of a collective bargaining agreement;
  • The work experience of past incumbents in the job; and/or
  • The current work experience of incumbents in similar jobs.