Kim Ammons worked as a security officer at a public school in Chicago. For a number of years, she was assigned to posts at her school where she could sit on a chair when she was not making rounds or intervening in security-related events.
At some point, the school district implemented a policy requiring that security officers no longer be permitted to be seated while working. The District required that security personnel walk around the premises on a continuous basis to provide a greater presence within the school and to offer greater vigilance and increased response time if incidents occurred.
Walking Through The Issue
Subsequently, Ammons developed plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue that runs across the bottom of the foot and causes significant discomfort. She therefore asked to be able to sit at a chair and desk for ten minutes of every hour in order to relieve her discomfort. The District denied this accommodation, however, stating that being able to walk on a continuous basis was an essential function of her job. Ammons therefore was placed on medical leave status due to her inability to remain on her feet all day.
Ammons sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failure to accommodate her medical condition, claiming that walking on a continuous basis was not an essential function of the job. The District then brought a motion for summary judgement (early dismissal). The judge who ruled on that motion noted that the following factors were relevant in determining what constituted an essential function of a particular job:
(1) the employee’s job description;
(2) the employer’s opinion;
(3) the amount of time spent performing the function;
(4) the consequences for not requiring the individual to perform the duty; and
(5) past and current work experiences.
District’s Explanation Does Not Sit Well With the Judge
The judge found the job description particularly noteworthy since it did not actually identify the amount of walking that was required for the job. While security personnel were expected to walk the premises and deal with issues of safety and security, the document did not support the conclusion that someone who needs to sit for a few minutes each hour could not do the job effectively. In fact, quite the opposite – the job description specifically called for the security officer to maintain “an orderly post” and remain “at the post at all times unless otherwise directed by a supervisor.” The judge concluded that this contemplated that a security officer would indeed be stationary for some period of time, thereby undermining the contention that constantly walking around the school was necessary.
The judge also was dubious of the District’s opinion that “a seated security officer has reduced capacity to respond to security threats.” There was testimony in the record that other security officers had not been disciplined for occasionally sitting while on duty, thereby creating “a factual dispute about whether the administration at the school actually applied the policy to all security officers.”
With additional questions arising out of the other three factors, the judge concluded that the District had not proven that the ability to walk on a continuous basis was an essential function of the job. He therefore denied the motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed to trial.
A job description should describe the job – it’s that simple. Therefore, if a task is not included in the job description, or it is included but not identified as essential, the employer is unlikely to be able to persuade anyone that the task is nevertheless an essential function of the job.
Be sure to revisit job descriptions on a regular basis and identify the essential functions of each job. In addition, make sure that those functions are being treated as essential and that employees are actually performing them.
In short, when it comes to job descriptions, be sure to talk the talk AND walk the walk.