By Joshua A. Rodine and Kimberly Shen

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment award on an employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim. The Court’s decision focused on the employer’s improperly narrow delineation of the essential functions of the employee’s position.

Hampton v. Utah Department of Corrections

It is the ultimate legal and PR nightmare for any employer: an employee who was terminated then sues the company for disability discrimination. Although there may be genuine cases of disability discrimination, many employees who claim to have been the victims of disability discrimination were actually terminated for reasons completely unrelated to their disabilities, and only after their employers made good-faith efforts to accommodate their disabilities.

As employers struggle to navigate the potential legal landmines giving rise to disability lawsuits, many find themselves entangled with questions like: What constitutes a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability? How can my company determine if this employee is capable of performing the essential functions of the position after receiving a reasonable accommodation? How can my company provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability? While clear answers to these questions are often lacking, a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit sheds some light on how employers should, and should not, approach contending with these questions in the workplace.

Case Background

Robert Hampton started his employment as a corrections officer in May 2016 at the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC). Hampton was born missing the second and fifth digits of both hands due to a congenital birth condition, and his hand and wrist structures lacked the bones, tendons, and muscles associated with those fingers. Consequently, Hampton often experienced difficulties grasping, pulling, or performing other functions with his hands. The warden in charge of Hampton’s hiring was aware of Hampton’s disability and the possible need for future accommodations at the time that Hampton was hired.

Unsurprisingly, some of Hampton’s job assignments necessitated carrying a firearm. Under the UDC’s firearms policy, the only approved handguns were Glocks. Hampton inquired about using a different style of handgun, stating that the Glock presented challenges to use due to his disability. There was a dispute as to whether Hampton received a response to his inquiry, but it was undisputed that the UDC would not grant the request.

Hampton was later fired after an incident in which he used a non-lethal handgun on which he had not been trained, on the grounds that he had created a hazardous work environment. Additionally, Hampton was found to have lied during the investigation of the incident. After his termination, Hampton sued UDC under the Rehabilitation Act, claiming, among other things, that UDC refused to accommodate his disability.

The Court’s Decision

The Utah District Court granted summary judgment on Hampton’s failure-to-accommodate claim. However, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded for further proceedings relating to this particular claim (it affirmed summary judgment as to the disability discrimination and retaliation claims).

The UDC argued that Hampton’s failure to accommodate claim failed because his request to use a non-Glock handgun was inherently unreasonable, as it would necessitate a deviation from policy. The Tenth Circuit concluded that Hampton’s request for a different handgun could be a reasonable accommodation under the Rehabilitation Act. This conclusion was based on the fact that the District Court erred in concluding that using a Glock handgun was an essential function of Hampton’s position; i.e., both the UDC’s and the District Court’s reliance on the UDC’s policy in determining essential functions was misplaced.

Best Practices for Employers

The Hampton decision demonstrates the importance of properly assessing the essential functions of a position prior to engaging in an interactive process with employees. Additionally, one glaring mistake that the UDC made as an employer was not responding to Hampton once he tried to inquire if he could use another handgun.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employee may use “plain English” and need not use the phrase “reasonable accommodation” when requesting an accommodation. Thus, any time an employee states that the employee is experiencing an issue performing the employee’s job related to a medical condition, the employer should consider whether the employee is making a request for an accommodation. If the employee has made an accommodation request, the recipient of the request should respond, even if the response is merely to explain the company’s accommodation process, and then refer the employee on to the appropriate person to handle the request. It is highly recommended that employers designate a person within the organization to handle accommodation requests and then train all supervisors, managers, HR representatives, and others in supervisory positions to consult with that designated person when an accommodation request is received.

When trying to determine whether an accommodation should be granted, an employer must assess the essential job functions, and whether the employer will be required to remove essential functions in relation to the requested accommodation. As the Tenth Circuit pointed out, Hampton was not seeking the removal of any job function, but rather a different tool for the purpose of performing that function.

Essential functions are major tasks that any person in the position should be able to perform. Factors to assess in determining whether a function is essential include:

  • Whether the reason the position exists is to perform that function,
  • The number of other employees available to perform the function or among whom the performance of the function can be distributed, and
  • The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function.
  • Types of evidence that the courts and EEOC will take into consideration when evaluating whether functions are essential include:
  • The actual work experience of present or past employees in the job,
  • The time spent performing the function,
  • The consequences of not requiring that an employee perform a function, and
  • The terms of a collective bargaining agreement.

If there is one major lesson that employers should take away from Hampton, it is that clearly outlining the essential functions of a position can go a long way in facilitating discussions around the reasonableness of requested accommodations. In Hampton, he UDC’s firearms policy failed to address the necessity of using Glock manufactured handguns, and was, therefore, insufficient to sway the Tenth Circuit that the requested accommodation was unreasonable. To mitigate the possibility of misunderstandings escalating into disability discrimination lawsuits, employers should try to unambiguously delineate the essential functions of the job positions in written job descriptions. By taking steps to document the essential functions of any given job, employers better position themselves to defend the inevitable lawsuits they will face.