The Sixth Circuit reverses summary judgment in an ADA case involving the operation of heavy equipment with a prosthetic leg. The court holds that it is prospectively for a jury, not a judge, to decide whether hauling such equipment to the worksite is an "essential function" of the job. The case highlights that formal job descriptions can sometimes differ markedly from in-the-field practice.
Henschel v. Clare Cnty. Road Comm'n, No. 13-1528 (6th Cir. Dec. 13, 2013): An excavator is a piece of heavy equipment used to dig trenches. The plaintiff Henschel - who worked for the county (CCRC) - worked as an excavator operator until he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The accident resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee; he was fitted for a prosthetic leg. The county decided not to return him to work as an operator partly because he would not be able to haul (deliver) the equipment to the site, which the county deemed an "essential function" of the job.
There was a gap between what county procedures provided about hauling equipment and what happened in practice. While - in practice - operators often did haul their own equipment using a manual-shift semi-truck, county procedures actually provided that "the duty to haul equipment as a function [is] assigned to its job description for Truck/Tractor Driver."
Henschel could not get medical certification to drive a manual-shift truck, thus preventing him from hauling his own equipment. The county cleared Henschel to return to work as a blade truck driver position (in an automatic transmission blade truck), but There were no vacancies in that position and eventually he was terminated.
Henschel sued the county for disability discrimination and failure to reasonably accommodate under the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment to the county, holding that hauling the excavator to the worksite was an essential function of the excavator operator position. "[T]he district court relied on: (1) CCRC's testimonial opinion that hauling is an essential function of the excavator operator position; (2) on its own conclusions that the position would fundamentally change if that responsibility were given to another employee; and (3) that CCRC lacked There employees to undertake the responsibility."
The Sixth Circuit reverses. The court holds that There was a disputed issue of fact about whether it was the role of the Truck/Tractor drivers to haul equipment, rather than the operators themselves. Applying the five-factor test developed by the EEOC for assessing "essential function" (29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(n)(3)), it holds that the county's litigation position (that hauling was an essential function) was contradicted by the job description that assigned the hauling task to the drivers.
Moreover, the actual hauling of equipment was only a small part of the operator's job, in any event: "Henschel testified that 90 percent of the time, the excavator stayed at the job site. The record does not address how much time Henschel actually spent hauling the excavator to different work sites, but this obviously varies depending on the number and location of work sites. Viewed in the light most favorable to Henschel, There is sufficient evidence that hauling the excavator did not take much of the excavator operator's time and was a relatively marginal function."
The court also holds that There's a disputed issue of fact about whether the county had enough drivers to haul the equipment for Henschel.
The court remands the case back to the district court to consider, in the first instance, whether Henschel could operate the excavator safely.