Sympathetic Does Not Always Equal Protected Under the ADA
Essential functions are called essential for a reason.
Today’s opinion is a lesson straight out of the school of hard knocks. No matter how sympathetic the plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.
When an opinion starts with this quote, you know that the plaintiff is not going to have a good day.
What happened in Sepúlveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants, LLC (1st Cir. 4/30/18) to garner this tough life lesson from the court?
Victor Sepúlveda-Vargas worked as an assistant manager in a Puerto Rico Burger King owned and operated by Caribbean Restaurants. While making the nightly bank deposit, Sepúlveda was robbed at gunpoint, hit over the head and had his car stolen. As one might expect, Sepúlveda did not come out of the incident mentally unscathed. In fact, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
Caribbean Restaurants requires its managers to work rotating shifts, and considered the requirement an essential function of the job — to spread among all managers the burden of working undesirable shifts.
Those rotating shifts would have required Sepúlveda, upon his return to work, from time to time to work the night shift on which he was robbed and assaulted. Instead, he requested a set schedule as a reasonable accommodation.
Initially, the employer granted Sepúlveda’s request. A couple of weeks later, however, it reconsidered and retroactively denied the accommodation, informing Sepúlveda of the essential nature of the rotating schedule.
Sepúlveda sued, claiming that that Caribbean Restaurants failed to reasonably accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA.
As you’ve likely gathered from the lede, Sepúlveda lost, based on the rotation as a essential function. The court was not only un-persuaded by Sepúlveda’s story, but also by the fact that the employer had initially granted the accommodation.
While … Caribbean initially granted Sepúlveda the accommodation on a temporary basis, that fact did not mean that it conceded that rotating shifts was a non-essential function.… To find otherwise would unacceptably punish employers from doing more than the ADA requires, and might discourage such an undertaking on the part of employers.
Essential functions are called essential for a reason. And while I can see an argument that waiving one by granting an accommodation lessens its essential-ness, this court saw it differently. An employer may (but is not required to) go above and beyond that which the ADA requires. And to punish an employer for doing so will only serve to deter employers from exceeding the ADA’s requirements in the future.
Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.