Not Every Job Restriction Pertains To An Essential Function

Earlier this month the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (the circuit that includes Tennessee) affirmed a jury’s verdict that Bemis Company discriminated against a former employee based on his disability when it terminated him based on his doctor’s restrictions.  The Plaintiff, Tony Gunter, was a press operator with the primary job duty of pressing graphics onto Huggies diapers.  Gunter injured his shoulder on the job.  The shoulder injury resulted in Gunter’s doctor imposing lifting restrictions on him.  Bemis terminated Gunter’s employment on the basis that his lifting restriction prevented him from performing the essential functions of his job.

At trial several witnesses testified that even with the lifting restriction Gunter could perform the essential functions of his press operator position.  In fact, Gunter’s co-worker’s testified that they regularly helped one another lift heavy objects, and thus the lifting restrictions would not impact Gunter’s ability to do his job.

Based on this testimony and other evidence the jury found that Bemis discriminated against Gunter based on his disability when it terminated his employment.  The jury awarded Gunter almost $600,000 in damages, but the Court of Appeals held that the front pay portion of that award needed to be recalculated.

Employers must remember that if an employment decision is based on an employee’s job restrictions,  those restrictions must prevent the employee from performing the essential functions of his or her job, even with a reasonable accommodation.  And remember, just because the job description says it is an essential function, that may not be the case.  Review the job description and make sure that the actual job duties are consistent with it before you make the decision.  The failure to do so could prove very costly.

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