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Employer’s Job Description Not Detailed Enough For Quick Win In ADA Failure To Accommodate Case

Job descriptions with lifting, standing, mobility, and/or other essential requirements are ubiquitous across all industries. EEOC interpretive regulations and numerous court decisions give deference to the judgement of employers as to what are the “essential functions” of the jobs they provide. Written job descriptions are presumed to accurately reflect essential functions. Why is this important? Because under the Americans with Disabilities Act, essential job functions need not be eliminated to reasonably accommodate a disabled individual. With this in mind you might think an employee or applicant who cannot stand for prolonged periods, or regularly lift up to 50 pounds, could readily be excluded from a job with these essential functions. A recent federal court decision suggests – think again.

Although written job descriptions enjoy a presumption of accuracy in court, the presumption may be rebutted with contrary evidence. If a plaintiff can poke holes in a job description by showing it does not reflect what the job actually entails, as the saying goes it may not be worth the paper it is written on. More and more savvy plaintiff lawyers are refusing to accept job descriptions at face value. 50-pound lifting requirement? How frequently, and what about assisting devices? Standing requirement? For how long, or, can short periods of sitting do the trick? Such was the case in a recent ADA lawsuit against Amazon. Altemus v. Services.

The plaintiff in this case, who had suffered a knee injury during his military service, asked to be allowed to sit periodically during his work shift and/or to be allowed to work while seated. Amazon refused the accommodations, relying on its job description that listed working while standing and ability to lift 50 lbs, as essential job functions. Amazon sought to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming the plaintiff could not be accommodated to meet these essential job qualifications, therefore, he was not qualified for the job. A federal judge in California wasn’t so sure. The judge did not dispute Amazon’s job description; rather, he found it unclear as to whether standing was necessary for the employee’s entire 12-hour shift. As a result, the judge said it would be left to a jury to decide if the plaintiff’s request to sit periodically was reasonable or posed an undue hardship.

This case provides some tough lessons for employers and their lawyers alike. The biggest lesson is that while job descriptions listing essential functions can provide a basis for denying accommodations, they are not always a complete defense. Because the ADA mandates an “individualized inquiry” as part of the “interactive process” of addressing accommodation requests, employers should always consider the accommodation(s) being requested and not focus exclusively on the job description. For example, if standing is a job requirement, an employee’s request to sit briefly once or twice during a work shift might call for a different result than a request to sit frequently, or for long periods. Another lesson for Amazon in this particular case suggests that a more detailed job description may have helped. Simply listing “standing” as an essential job function caused the court to turn to a jury to fill in details at trial. For example, standing for how long, or could the job be performed with occasional and limited seated rests?

While it may be tempting for defense lawyers to simply chalk this case up to litigating in pro-plaintiff California, doing so could deprive them of additional lessons to be gleaned from the court’s decision. First and foremost, as the adage says, don’t put all your eggs into one basket. In other words, while job descriptions are undoubtedly the first line of defense to a failure to accommodate claim, they are not the only, end-all defense. It appears from the court’s ruling that Amazon may not have made much of a case beyond relying on its job description to claim the plaintiff, Altemus, could not perform the job even with reasonable accommodations. However, Altemus presented evidence that non-disabled employees took rest breaks during the workday he claimed could have allowed him to meet the physical demands of the job.

Amazon could also have helped its lawyers if its management had listened to one of its human resources representatives who advocated for a more thorough interactive process to explore accommodations. There is a good chance that had this process occurred, Altemus’ assertion that he could adequately perform this physically demanding job if only he could sit once in a while, would not have worked.  Now, however, he and his lawyer have the luxury of presenting this hypothetical theory to a jury, without having to demonstrate it would work in Amazon’s real work environment. 

Bottom line – job descriptions that accurately describe essential job functions can be indispensable in defending against an ADA accommodation case. A detailed job description can be even better. But job descriptions alone do not always provide a fool-proof defense to a refusal to accommodate lawsuit. Always engage in a good faith, interactive process with each employee or job applicant using job descriptions as a starting point, not necessarily an ending point in the discussion. After all, it is what the ADA requires.

Questions? Contact attorney James B. Sherman isby phone at 952-746-1700 or by email at

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