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BLOG / 08.30.23 /Jack Malley

Second Circuit Decision Clarifies “Essential Function” Requirement for Employees Seeking Disability Accommodations

Participants in the HR/employment law world are readily familiar with the concept that an employee’s request for a reasonable disability accommodation will only be viable if the employee can perform the “essential functions” of his/her job with the accommodation.

An August 18, 2023 decision issued by the Second Circuit in Tafolla v. County of Suffolk, et al provided clarity on the “essential function” requirement.

The case involved a former clerk/typist of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office who alleged a disability discrimination claim against the county. Her job responsibilities included a task called “archiving,” which typically involved entering information from court files into a database when a prosecutor closed a criminal case.

After suffering a spine injury in a car accident, the clerk submitted a doctor’s note to the county stating that she could not pick up heavy files due to the injury. She requested an accommodation of another employee temporarily taking over her archiving responsibilities, which was denied. She went on medical leave and was eventually terminated.

The clerk commenced an action in the district court alleging, among other things, disability discrimination based on the county’s alleged failure to accommodate the disability. The district court granted the county’s summary judgment motion, thereby dismissing the clerk’s lawsuit. The clerk appealed the decision.

In its decision, the Second Circuit held that the term “essential functions” is defined as the fundamental duties to be performed in the job, not functions that are merely marginal.

The Court emphasized that courts analyzing an essential functions question must give considerable deference to the employer’s judgment as to what functions are essential, but conduct a fact-specific inquiry into both the employer’s description of a job and how the job is actually performed in practice. Factors to be considered include:

  • Written job descriptions
  • Amount of time spent on the job performing the function
  • Work experience of past employees in the position
  • Work experience of current employees in similar positions

In Tafolla, the clerk’s supervisor testified that he didn’t know whether archiving was essential and that it was a minimal part of the clerk’s job. An assistant district attorney testified that clerks have a lot of pressing work to get done and that archiving was the “last thing” clerks need to do. The clerk’s supervisor acknowledged that clerks were permitted to divide up the various tasks among themselves, and that if the clerk was given the accommodation, her colleagues could have done the necessary archiving work.

The Second Circuit found there was no deadline for archiving any particular file and that the clerk’s official job description did not provide any detail as to what archiving work is comprised of, although other aspects of her job were described with some detail. Based on these and other factors, the Second Circuit determined that archiving was not an essential function of the clerk’s job – and reversed the district court’s decision.

What’s the takeaway? To minimize the risk of a bad court outcome, employers need to:

  • Craft detailed job descriptions that identify the essential functions
  • Periodically evaluate job duties, which may evolve over time
  • Amend job descriptions to document any changes