Only the most die-hard HR professional considers job descriptions as exciting and management outside of HR often ignore them altogether. But job descriptions are a critical first step in guarding against employer liability when it comes to federal and Michigan disability-related employment discrimination claims.
Take for example a recent Michigan employment decision arising under the Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act) (Williams v Michigan Department of Corrections 7/21/2015). In this case, Plaintiff began working for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in September 2003, as a corrections officer. However, during her employment, she had a kidney transplant and other health issues that forced her to stop working for defendant in 2004. She returned to the MDOC in 2005 also as a corrections officer. But her medical problems continued and plaintiff took additional medical leave.
She again returned in 2008 with no work restrictions. Upon returning, she also applied to and was transferred to a different prison facility. This position, however, was a very physically demanding assignment with almost no light-duty activities for guards; The guards at this facility were especially active and involved in the boot-camp style physical activities. After this transfer, Plaintiff later underwent additional medical treatment that required her to be off approximately eight weeks. Upon returning, Plaintiff requested to be placed on light duty assignments or to be transferred again and supported this request with a doctor’s note directing her to abstain from “strenuous exercise & stressful situations.”
However, Plaintiff had exhausted her entitlement for leave under the family and medical leave act (FMLA) and she was told there were no light duty assignments available to her. Accordingly, Plaintiff was given a choice of providing a release from her doctor allowing her to return to regular work duties or requesting a waived rights leave of absence. Instead, Plaintiff submitted a second doctor’s note exempting her from “prolonged regular calisthenics.” Defendant responded by terminating her employment in August 2010.
Employee Disabilities, Employment Accommodations, and Job Duties
The Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act, which is similar to the federal American’s with d Disabilities Act (ADA) provides that an employer shall not “[d]ischarge or otherwise discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation or the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of a disability or genetic information that is unrelated to the individual’s ability to perform the duties of a particular job or position.” MCL 37.1202(1)(b). The Defendant employer and former employee agreed that plaintiff was disabled for purposes of the statue. They disagreed, however, as to whether Plaintiff’s disability prevented her “from performing the essential functions of her job, and whether plaintiff’s disability was unrelated to her ability to perform her job duties.
This disagreement was essentially the “ball-game” because under Michigan employment law, a plaintiff alleging a violation of the Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act must show that she is able, with or without accommodation, to perform those functions; otherwise, the employee cannot proceed on a Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act claim.
To answer this question and the reason job descriptions should be priority number one for any employer, the Court turned to the issue of what were the essential functions of the applicable job.
… the customary responsibilities of the employer in defining the scope of job positions are unaffected by the [Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act] and . . . the judgment of the employer in terms of such scope is entitled to substantial deference by the courts under the [Act] … and [it] is not a statute designed to regulate, or to set governmental standards for, particular employment positions . . . . Nor is it a statute designed to enable judges to second-guess, or to improve upon, the business judgments of employers. Thus, the judgment of the employer regarding the duties of a given job position is entitled to substantial deference.
(internal citations omitted). Upon framing the issue from this perspective, the Court had no difficulty in reversing the trial court’s decision, deciding the case in favor of the employer, and dismissing Plaintiff’s claim. In sum, because the employment position required significant physical activity, including running and training prisoners, the Plaintiff could not perform these job duties. Thus, her condition rendered Plaintiff unqualified to perform this particular job because she could not perform the essential functions of the job.
Employers frequently face concerns when it comes to disciplining employees for poor performance or violating company policies when those employees may have raised issues that are covered by federal or Michigan anti-discrimination laws or disability-related employment laws. Such discipline, including terminations, can turn legitimate disciplinary action into a high-risk endeavor. See a recent post, “Oy Vey! No Religious Discrimination in Jewish Nurse’s Termination” where an employee tried to turn a 3 month old incident into the discrimination lawsuit). But the above case shows why companies and their HR professionals can substantially reduce this risk and even eliminate by giving proper attention to drafting meaningful job descriptions, including the essential functions of that particular job.
For more information about responding to an employee’s request for workplace accommodations, as well as complying with Michigan’s Disabilities Civil Rights Act or the ADA, contact Michigan employment attorney Jason Shinn. Since 2001, he has worked with employers when it comes to complying with employment laws, including those involving workplace accommodations.