Joseph White was hired as a technician by Interstate Distributor Co., on July 1, 2008. The essential functions of his job addressed heavy truck repair work, including lifting objects over 80 pounds on occasion, lifting at least 40 pounds for a significant part of the work period, and a range of repair tasks. In July 2009, White’s leg was fractured when a motorcycle fell on it. White contacted his employer to initiate a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Interstate notified White that he would be expected to return to work at the end of his FMLA leave in October 2009, and offered to engage in an interactive process to discuss reasonable accommodations that may support his return to work. White’s doctor examined him October 16, 2009, , and gave him temporary work restrictions for an additional 1-2 months, including not lifting over 20 pounds, and not climbing or doing tire or transmission work.
White returned to work October 20, 2009 and communicated his doctor’s restrictions. White’s supervisor told him there were no available positions compatible with his work restrictions, since the essential functions included activities such as heavy lifting and tire work. White did not suggest any accommodations that would allow him to engage in the heavy lifting requirements. White did suggest that he was still able to “decommission” trucks – involving preparing a truck to be stripped and sold – and proposed that he be allowed to do this activity for the 1-2 months until his full recovery. Decommissioning trucks was included among the tasks that technicians sometimes were expected to do. The employer refused, indicating that decommissioning trucks is done on a temporary, ad-hoc basis, and is not a full-time permanent position.
White filed suit under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and under the Tennessee Disabilities Act (TDA), alleging employment discrimination. The district court for the Middle District of Tennessee found for the defendant employer. White appealed to the 6th Circuit.
If any of the essential functions of a job cannot be performed, then the employer has a defense to the charge of discrimination, even if an employee can perform other activities. Interstate Distributor Co. was therefore under no obligation to allow White to engage in the modified task of only decommissioning trucks during the temporary period of extended restrictions. The court noted that since decommissioning is not a distinct, full-time position, the employer had no burden to create such a position as an accommodation. Therefore, since White’s proposed alternative position was not a reasonable accommodation, White was not qualified for the job of technician.
The 6th Circuit held for the defendant, indicating that White was not qualified for the position of technician.
In determining whether an employer has a duty to accommodate by altering job requirements or duties, first a worker with a disability must establish that he or she can perform all essential functions of the position. An employer has no burden to allow short-term modifications that exempt employees from performing any job function defined as “essential”, even if the employee can establish the ability to engage in other activities that are normally part of the job.