The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that an excavator operator with a prosthetic leg may be entitled to reinstatement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if he can perform the essential functions of his position safely. Henschel v. Clare Cnty. Rd. Comm’n, No. 13-1528 (6th Cir. December 13, 2013).
Wayne Henschel began working as an excavator operator for the Clare County Road Commission (CCRC) in 2007. In August 2009, Henschel’s left leg was amputated above the knee as a result of a motorcycle accident. While recovering from the accident, Henschel was fitted for a prosthetic leg in anticipation of returning to work. At the same time, CCRC hired a temp to fill Henschel’s position until he could return.
As an excavator operator, the essential functions of Henschel’s job included operating the excavator, a heavy piece of equipment, which was delivered to work sites by various CCRC employees. Hauling and delivering the excavator to work sites was a function included in the “truck/tractor driver” job description. This duty was not included in the excavator operator job description. The hauling duty, however, was encompassed as part of “other assigned duties.”
In practice, Henschel transported the excavator to work sites seventy percent of the time. This contrasted with his predecessor who relied on a semi-truck driver to deliver the excavator. Regardless of who moved the excavator, the equipment remained at a particular work site ninety percent of the time, and when it needed to be moved, there were often other employees available.
After sufficiently recovering from his accident, Henschel asked to return to work in the excavator operator position. He applied to the Michigan Traffic Safety Division (MTSD) for a medical waiver to maintain his CDL license. The MTSD requested additional information from CCRC, including an evaluation of Henschel’s ability to perform the essential job functions of truck driver while wearing a prosthetic leg. CCRC included delivering the excavator as an essential function of Henschel’s position. Henschel was granted a medical waiver to retain his CDL, however he was restricted to driving automatic-transmission vehicles (the trucks used to haul the excavator are manual transmission).
After CCRC’s attempt to transfer Henschel to another position failed, Henschel was terminated because he could not perform the essential functions of the excavator operator position. Henschel filed a charge with the EEOC and then sued CCRC for disability discrimination under the ADA. The district court concluded that Henshel could not haul the excavator, an essential function of the position.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the hauling function may not have been an essential function of the excavator operator position because the function was not included in the position’s job description. Indeed, delivery of the excavator was specifically mentioned in the truck/tractor driver job description. Despite testimony that hauling the excavator was an essential part of the operator’s job, the court noted that other factors are also considered in determining the essential functions of a position. Specifically, the actual job experiences of employees, past and present, in the position must be considered.
The court concluded that there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to the essential functions of the excavator operator position. It remanded the case so that the district court could determine whether Henschel was qualified to operate the excavator. If Henschel is qualified and can perform the job safely, he may be entitled to reinstatement.