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Can job descriptions protect against disability disputes?

On Behalf of | Jun 2, 2020 | Employment Law

Business owners may leave themselves more defenseless against an Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit if they do not have well-drafted job descriptions. An accurate and non-discriminatory explanation of the job’s essential functions is essential in employment law and for ADA-compliance.

ADA and essential functions

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employment discrimination against qualified workers with a physical or mental disability that substantially limits a major life activity. The worker, however, must be qualified to perform the job’s essential functions with or without reasonable accommodations.

The ADA governs employment-related activities. These include recruitment, compensation and benefits, hiring, firing, promotion, training and leave.

Essential job functions are the basic job duties. These are factors such as whether the job exists to perform that function, the number of other workers available to perform it or whether the employer can allocate those functions to several other employees, and the amount of expertise or skill needed to perform that function.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the ADA, considers several facts as evidence of essential job functions. These include the work experience of past and present employees on that job, the time performing a task, the consequences if an employee does not perform that task and any collective bargaining agreement.


Enforcement powers include EEOC investigation and requiring employers to hire, promote or reinstate an employee and provide reasonable accommodations. Financial penalties may be costly and include back pay, damages for harm such as mental and emotional anguish and attorney’s fees.

A 2018 federal appeals case from Florida illustrates the consequences of an inadequate job description. A college did not list a 12-hour job shift as an essential function in its job posting for the position. But it later changed the employee’s working shift from 8 to 12 hours.

The employee suffered high blood pressure symptoms. After the employee’s doctor identified the longer shift as the cause of these symptoms, the employee requested a shorter shift. The employee retired after the college refused this request.

The jury found the college liable and awarded $142,268 for lost wages and $108,810 for mental and emotional damage. The appellate court affirmed and found that the employee could perform the essential job duties listed in the job description, which did not require a 12-hour shift.

An effective job description

Courts first review the essential functions contained in the job description when there are claims that the worker cannot perform those functions. For ADA compliance, business owners must define the essential functions of the job in this description. They must inform applicants and employees about the job’s requirements and whether they must request a reasonable accommodation to do the job.

Employers cannot use descriptions that are directly or indirectly discriminatory. For example, a requirement that an applicant must have a college degree issued within the last 20 years is not discriminatory on its face. But this requirement constitutes age discrimination because it effectively excludes applicants who are over 40 years old.

A strong job description sets forth the job’s duties and responsibilities. It also contains a distinction between essential and non-essential functions.

Also, the description must contain justification for an employee’s exempt classification. The law has a duties and salary test for determining whether the worker’s classification is correctly exempt. Job descriptions should contain a list of responsibilities that meet this test.

An attorney can assist employers with drafting effective job descriptions and other vital documents for workers. Lawyers may also represent you in many employment investigations and cases.