1st Circ. ADA Decision Turns On 'Essential Function' Doctrine

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities who can nonetheless perform the “essential functions” of their job. What qualifies as an “essential function” of a particular job? Some cases are clear-cut. Firefighters, for example, must be mobile enough to run into a burning building and save lives. Other cases are murkier. For example, is it an “essential function” for a fast-food restaurant manager to be able to work rotating shifts each week at different times of day?

In a recent decision in Sepulveda-Vargas v. Caribbean Restaurants LLC, the First Circuit answered yes. Victor Sepulveda-Vargas suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and thus asked to work one specific time slot each week (rather than rotate shifts at different times of day each week). The First Circuit held that the defendant, Caribbean Restaurants, proved that being able to work rotating shifts was an "essential function' of the plaintiff’s job.

The First Circuit’s holding may at first seem counterintuitive — how can alternating between morning, afternoon and evening shifts be "essential" to managing a fast-food restaurant? The explanation lies in the First Circuit’s treatment of two features of the ADA’s "essential function" doctrine. Understanding these features will help parties navigate the nuances of ADA lawsuits.

Sepulveda-Vargas Sues Caribbean for Discrimination Under the ADA

The plaintiff, Sepulveda-Vargas, worked as an assistant manager at Burger King restaurants run by the defendant, Caribbean Restaurants. In 2011, while making a bank deposit for Caribbean, a burglar hit him over the head and stole his car. Sepulveda-Vargas developed PTSD and a major depressive disorder as a result of the attack. To help with his PTSD, Sepulveda-Vargas requested a fixed work schedule, with a consistent weekly time slot (instead of a rotating weekly schedule, like every other assistant manager). While Caribbean initially accommodated him, it eventually demanded that Sepulveda-Vargas work rotating shifts like every other assistant manager. He resigned in 2013, unable to cope with the rotating schedule.

Sepulveda-Vargas sued Caribbean under the ADA. He alleged that Caribbean failed to reasonably accommodate him by providing him with a fixed work schedule. To succeed on his ADA claim, Sepulveda-Vargas had to at least show that, although he was disabled under the ADA, he was nonetheless qualified to perform the "essential functions" of his job. The district court granted summary judgment to Caribbean, holding that Sepulveda-Vargas could not perform an "essential function" of his job because he could not work rotating shifts. Sepulveda-Vargas appealed.

First Circuit Finds an “Essential Function”

The First Circuit affirmed, holding that Caribbean established that working rotating shifts was an essential function of Sepulveda-Vargas’ job as assistant manager. The court emphasized two features of the "essential function" doctrine.

First, the First Circuit noted that the ADA and its regulations require that courts credit an employer’s documented judgments about which functions of a job are "essential." Both Caribbean’s job application for assistant manager positions and its newspaper advertisements for the job made clear that rotating shifts were a core responsibility. This convinced the First Circuit that “it was uncontested that from Caribbean’s perspective, the ability to work rotating shifts was essential.”

Second, the First Circuit’s reasoning makes clear that the "essential function" inquiry looks not only at whether the plaintiff employee can perform his or her own tasks — it also looks to whether the employee can perform the job without unduly burdening coworkers. Caribbean maintained that the ability to work rotating shifts was essential because it allowed for the equal distribution of work among all assistant managers. Every other assistant manager rotated shifts. The court found that “accommodating Sepulveda permanently would have had the adverse impact of inconveniencing all other assistant managers who would have to work unattractive shifts in response to Sepulveda’s fixed schedule.” The First Circuit thus concluded that the ability to rotate shifts was an "essential function" of the assistant manager role.

Consequences for Employers and Employees

Sepulveda-Vargas will make it harder for employees to successfully sue their employers under the ADA. The decision also recommends strategies employers can take to avoid costly ADA lawsuits.

For instance, employers should clearly describe and advertise which functions of a job they deem "essential." The First Circuit credited Caribbean’s argument that working rotating shifts was an essential job function largely because Caribbean included this requirement in its job applications and advertisements. Employers should emulate this practice, especially when an essential function might seem unusual or idiosyncratic to a layperson. Employees, meanwhile, could point out the lack of this type of documentation.

Employers and employees should also note that the ‘essential function’ analysis looks at how a plaintiff’s requested accommodation would impact his or her fellow employees. Sepulveda-Vargas’ PTSD and depression did not hinder his ability to manage Caribbean’s restaurants. But it did require that he work a fixed shift schedule that would have sorely inconvenienced all of his colleagues. Going forward, employers can look to these organization-wide burdens when defending against ADA lawsuits.

As American law and society more fully (and properly) recognize the plight of individuals with mental health issues, litigation seeking to accommodate these individuals under statutes like the ADA will no doubt increase. Sepulveda-Vargas provides useful guidance to employers and employees on how federal courts will decide these cases in the future.


This article previously appeared on Reprinted with permission.