ADA Claim Revived by Dispute over Essential Functions

An excavator operator for the Clare County Road Commission in Michigan sued his employer for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by terminating him because he was not a “qualified individual.” Henschel v. Clare County Road Commission (6th Cir. 2013). 

Henschel’s left leg was amputated following a motorcycle accident, and he subsequently wore a prosthetic device. He received a medical waiver to maintain his commercial driver’s license, but was restricted from driving manual transmission vehicles. His employer said that driving a manual transmission truck to haul the excavator between job sites was an essential function of Henschel’s job. Henschel admitted that prior to his accident he hauled equipment about 70 percent of his time, but said that the equipment stayed at the work site about 90 percent of the time. It was only when a digging project was complete that the equipment had to be moved. He argued that other individuals could move the excavator, and that hauling the excavator was a marginal function from which he could be excused.  

Henschel’s job description failed to mention that transportation of the excavator was an essential function. This function was listed, however, in the job description for “truck/tractor driver.” The job description and Henschel’s testimony about his work experience created enough of a question, when weighed against the employer’s judgment in the matter, for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to send the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. The Sixth Circuit said that the district court needed to determine whether the employee could operate the excavator safely.

This case highlights the importance of having accurate, up-to-date job descriptions. They are one of several factors courts consider in evaluating whether a particular task is an essential function. Contact MSEC for assistance with creating or updating job descriptions.