On June 15, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reversed the order of the district court that granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a lawsuit under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Shell v. City of Anderson, No. 14-2958 (7th Cir. June 15, 2015). The plaintiff worked as a day shift mechanic’s helper for the City of Anderson Transit System until his employment was terminated by the new General Manager after 12 years. He sued under the ADA alleging that the defendant failed to accommodate his disabilities (hearing and vision impairments), leading to his termination. The issue on appeal was whether occasional bus driving, which the plaintiff had never done during his 12 years of employment, was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job. A Commercial Drivers License (“CDL”) is required to drive a bus, but the plaintiff’s disabilities precluded him from obtaining a CDL. The defendant terminated him on the basis that his written job description required a CDL (because it included bus driving), but he could not obtain one. The job description stated that a mechanic’s helper “may occasionally” drive buses to field locations.

The Americans With Disabilities Act forbids employment discrimination on the basis of disability, including the failure to accommodate a known disability of a qualified individual with a disability, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business. To prevail on an ADA failure to accommodate claim, the plaintiff must establish that he or she is a qualified individual with a disability, defined by the ADA as an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of his or her job. The 7th Circuit considered the issue of whether driving a bus was not an essential function of the plaintiff’s job as a matter of law. The City could only require the plaintiff to obtain a CDL if one was required to perform an essential job function. Unless bus driving was an essential job function, the City could not use the plaintiff’s inability to obtain a CDL as the basis for his employment termination.

An essential job function is a fundamental job duty required of a person in the job. A marginal duty is not an essential job function. A variety of factors are taken into account. No single factor is dispositive. The employer’s written job description for the position is evidence of the essential job functions, but it is just one of several factors to consider. The language in the job description concerning the plaintiff’s bus driving duty was qualified by the words “may” and “occasionally.” In addition, the City’s actual practice suggested that the need for a day shift mechanic’s helper to drive a bus was not fundamental to the position. A job duty is not essential if it is so small a part that it could be reassigned to other employees at negligible cost to the employer. The 7th Circuit concluded that the record did not establish as a matter of law that driving a bus was an essential function of the plaintiff’s position. Therefore, the 7th Circuit reversed the summary judgment order to allow the plaintiff’s ADA case to proceed to a jury trial.