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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires covered employers generally to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities. The ADA provides, however, that the employee must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the job with the accommodation, and that the accommodation cannot prove to be an “undue hardship” on the employer.

In the recent case of Knutson v. Schwan’s Home Service, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that a job requirement can be an “essential function,” even if the employee is not required to perform the function on a regular basis.

In this case, Mr. Knutson was a manager for Schwan’s Home Service, which delivers frozen food. Managers for Schwan’s are required to maintain DOT driving certification. In March 2008, Mr. Knutson sustained an eye injury. Because of the eye injury, Mr. Knutson was required to undergo a medical exam and be recertified. In December 2008, an eye doctor refused to give Mr. Knutson a DOT certification or a waiver. Schwan’s then gave Mr. Knutson 30 days to find a job within the company that did not require DOT driving certification. Mr. Knutson was unable to find such a job within the company and was terminated by Schwan’s.

Following his termination, Mr. Knutson filed suit against Schwan’s pursuant to the ADA. He argued that since he was able to successfully manage his terminal without driving a truck that maintaining the DOT certification was not an “essential function” of his position. The evidence before the court showed that Mr. Knutson was DOT qualified at the time of his injury; he admitted to delivering product in his personal vehicle; and he testified that since November 2007 that he had driven a truck less than 50 times while working as a manager.

The court disagreed with Mr. Knutson and held that “essential functions” of a job are determined based on the written job description, the employer’s judgment, and the experience and expectations of all individuals working in the same position. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of Schwan’s.

The court’s ruling in this case is good news for employers. Employers should use this case as a reminder of the importance of having a carefully analyzed comprehensive written job description for all positions, clearly identifying essential functions of the position. In addition, if essential functions of a position change over time, it is important to make appropriate revisions to the written job description for the position.

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