Poorly Drafted or Outdated Job Descriptions May Make ADA Claims More Difficult to Defend

An effective written job description clearly, accurately, and completely identifies and describes an employee’s duties, functions, and responsibilities. When employers create job descriptions that are inaccurate or when they allow descriptions that were accurate at the time of drafting to become outdated, they create legal risk.

This is because an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is tethered to the “essential functions” of the job. Courts interpreting and applying the EEOC’s ADA regulations have found that the employer’s written job description is compelling evidence of the essential functions for a given position. As a result, when written job descriptions do not reflect reality, employers may get into trouble.

Poorly drafted job descriptions can do more harm than good.

At first blush, creating a job description seems like a straightforward task. But descriptions often are organized around imprecise and sometimes confusingly overlapping headings such as “Qualifications,” “Position Objectives,” “Job Duties,” “Job Requirements” and “Special Demands.” Correlating the attributes of a given job with the headings in the employer’s job description form can be a daunting task. And getting it wrong can have real, negative consequences.

For example, in a recent case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s denial of judgment as a matter of law to an employer after a jury awarded a university police officer damages on a failure to accommodate ADA claim. When the plaintiff officer was hired, officers worked eight-hour shifts, but when a new police chief was appointed, the requirement increased to 12-hour shifts, which caused the plaintiff to experience high blood pressure. When the department refused to allow him to return to an eight-hour shift, the plaintiff retired and sued under the ADA.

Part of the appellate court’s reasoning for affirming the denial of judgment as a matter of law is that the employer’s “Position Description” contained a list of “Essential Functions,” which did not contain any shift length requirement. The only reference in the description to shift length was a separate section titled “WORKING HOURS” that did state the 12-hour shift requirement and noted that “[d]epending upon the needs of the departments, shifts may be changed.” The Eleventh Circuit found that a reasonable jury could have looked at the headings in the job description and concluded that the 12-hour shift was not an essential function of the position. See Snead v. Florida Agric. & Mech. Univ. Bd. of Trs., No. 17-10338, 2018 WL 992302 (11th Cir. Feb. 21, 2018).

Allowing job descriptions to become stale creates legal risk.

Over time, due to organizational evolution, the advancement of technology, and employee turnover, job descriptions become stale. It may seem that an outdated job description is harmless so long as the employee filling the job is meeting performance expectations. But a recent case illustrates that stale job descriptions may give rise to significant legal risk.

In this example, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of an employer’s motion for judgment as a matter of law after a jury awarded an in-house attorney damages for the employer’s denial of her request to work from home as an ADA accommodation for pregnancy-related complications. The employer argued that her request was per se unreasonable because it precluded her from performing several essential functions identified in the job description, such as being physically present on the job, deposing witnesses, and appearing in court.

The Sixth Circuit held, however, that the jury had sufficient evidence to reasonably find in the plaintiff’s favor. One reason for the court’s holding was that the employer’s job description “was based on a 20-year-old questionnaire that did not reflect changes in the job that have resulted from technological advancements since that time”—a fact that was highlighted by the plaintiff’s uncontested testimony that she had never performed two of the “essential functions” in her eight years working for the employer and because she had much more recently completed a questionnaire regarding her actual job duties that the employer apparently failed to incorporate into its job descriptions. See Mosby-Meachem v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div., 883 F.3d 595 (6th Cir. 2018).

The Bottom Line

Job descriptions should always be accurate. Further, an employer may limit potential liability arising from job descriptions by conducting regularly scheduled audits to ensure that descriptions match the current needs and functions of each position. Particular focus should be given to those functions that are essential to the position, since those are most likely to be used by a court in evaluating an ADA claim.