Keywords: employment discrimination, essential function, reasonable accommodation
Anthony Rorrer was a firefighter for the City of Stow (Ohio). After a non-work related accident, he lost vision in his right eye. After initially being cleared by doctors to return to work without restriction, he was told he was unfit to continue as a firefighter because it was determined that his monocular vision prevented him from driving fire apparatus during an emergency. Rorrer requested two possible accommodations: 1) continuing his current duties without the need to drive the fire apparatus, or alternatively, 2) transferring to a position as a fire inspector. These requests were denied and Rorrer was terminated.
He brought suit under the ADA, and the District Court granted summary judgment for the city, finding that Rorrer could no longer perform the essential functions of the position and that his requested accommodations were unreasonable. Summary judgment is a finding by the court sought by parties in a legal case where the moving party (in this case the defendant) asks the court to rule in their favor without a full trial. In order for the court to grant summary judgment, there must be no remaining issue of material fact to dispute. Rorrer appealed this decision, and the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision and sent the case back to the District Court, finding that there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether driving the fire apparatus was an essential function of the position and if the accommodations proposed by Rorrer were reasonable.
Anthony Rorrer was a firefighter for the city of Stow. In 2008, he injured his right eye in a bottle rocket incident and lost all vision in that eye. The surgeon who operated on Rorrer’s eye cleared him to return to work without restriction. The city required him to see the department physician, Dr. Moten, before returning to work. When Rorrer arrived for his appointment, Moten was not present and Rorrer was instead examined by a colleague who also cleared Rorrer to return to work without restriction.
Rorrer informed the chief of the fire department that he had been cleared to return to work. Surprised by this, the chief called Dr. Moten. Dr. Moten then issued his own report, without examining Rorrer himself, saying there was a mistake and Rorrer was unfit to return to work because he was blind in his right eye. When telling Rorrer that he was unable to return to work, the chief referenced the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) guidelines which included the job requirement of “operating fire apparatus or other vehicles in an emergency mode with emergency lights and sirens.” Additionally these regulations indicate that monocular vision compromises a firefighter’s ability to perform this essential task. Rorrer’s employment with the fire department was terminated.Rorrer brought suit in District Court claiming his termination violated the ADA. First he claimed that the city had not adopted the NFPA regulations that were used to determine he could no longer perform an essential function of the position. He cited an internal city document that listed essential functions of the job. This document said a firefighter may operate emergency vehicles. Rorrer also sought two accommodations for his disability: 1) That he continue to be a firefighter without driving fire apparatus during an emergency, and 2) that he be transferred to the Fire Prevention Bureau to serve as a fire inspector. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the city finding that there was no genuine dispute as to whether driving a fire apparatus under emergency lights was an essential function of a Stow firefighter, and Rorrer’s proposed accommodation of transfer to the Fire Prevention Bureau was unreasonable.
The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. A “qualified individual” is an individual, who with or without reasonable accommodations, can perform the essential functions of a position.
The Sixth Circuit found that the question of whether a job function is essential is typically a question of fact that is not suitable to be determined on a motion for summary judgment. Essential functions are fundamental job duties, not merely marginal functions of the job. A function may be essential if 1) the position exists to perform that function, 2) only a limited number of employees are available to perform it, or 3) it is highly specialized. Factors that are taken into determination are the employer’s judgment and the written description of the job. The ADA Title I regulations also list additional factors. Those factors are:
The Sixth Circuit noted that while the employer’s judgment and the written description are factors, they are not conclusive factors in determining whether a specific function is essential, especially at the summary judgment stage. The District Court had granted judgment for the city, citing to an internal document that mentioned essential functions of being a firefighter. The District Court also ruled that Rorrer would not be able to refuse if he were asked to drive fire apparatus, and this was also a factor to consider. The Sixth Circuit clarified that federal courts do not need to give deference to employer’s judgment, just consideration.
The Sixth Circuit also did not accept the argument that driving fire apparatus is an essential function because Rorrer would not be able to refuse if asked. The Sixth Circuit found that an essential task is not any task that an employee would feel compelled to perform if ordered to do so. If so, that would contradict the purpose of the ADA, which is to prohibit employers from requiring employees with disabilities to perform tasks that the law deems unessential. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the District Court erred when it granted summary judgment for the city on this issue of whether or not Rorrer could perform an “essential function.”
Rorrer requested two accommodations before he was terminated. First he asked that he be able to continue as a firefighter without having to operate fire apparatus during an emergency. The District Court found this was unreasonable because it would be taking away an essential task. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, and found that viewing the facts in light most favorable to the defendant, driving the fire apparatus could be a marginal function that could easily be transferred to another individual. If that were the case, it would not be an unreasonable accommodation.
Rorrer also requested a transfer to the Fire Protection Bureau. The District Court found this request to be unreasonable because there was no vacant position available. The Sixth Circuit found that even if the District Court did not err in determining that the first requested accommodation was unreasonable, they erred in determining that the requested transfer was unreasonable. The Sixth Circuit noted that there was a genuine dispute as to whether there was a vacancy at the time Rorrer requested the transfer as an accommodation. The Sixth Circuit also found the city’s immediate conclusion that Rorrer was unfit to serve as a firefighter suggested bad faith and fell short of their obligation to engage in an interactive process to seek an accommodation.
The case does not make the determination of whether or not driving fire apparatus during an emergency is an essential function. However it provides guidance to lower courts in making the determination of what is an “essential function,” more specifically, that an employer’s deference should be considered, but is not conclusive as to what is an essential function. It is also important to note the Sixth Circuit’s comment that the determination of an essential function is rarely appropriate at the summary judgment stage. This arguably makes it easier for an employee bringing a claim of discrimination under Title I of the ADA that involves a request for reasonable accommodations to survive past a defendant’s motion for summary judgment.