Friday, March 24, 2006

Third Circuit: Job Rotation Might Not Be Essential Function

In its opinion last week in Turner v. Hershey Chocolate USA, the Third Circuit made two rulings that should be helpful to ADA employment plaintiffs. The plaintiff was an inspector in a Hershey plant that makes peppermint patties. The patties were inspected on three assembly lines, one of which required inspectors to do a lot of bending and twisting, which the plaintiff's medical condition kept her from doing. When Hershey's instituted a rotation system that required inspectors to work on all three lines, the plaintiff objected and ultimately went on long-term disability at the company's suggestion. The district court granted Hershey's motion for summary judgment, but the Third Circuit reversed.

The court of appeals first held that the plaintiff's applications for long-term disability and SSDI were not inconsistent with her claim that she was "qualified" for her job under the ADA: "Because the[] statements [in her disability application] did not state categorically that Turner could not work at all or take into account Turner’s entitlement toreasonable accommodation, we see no inconsistency between these statements and her current claim."

On the merits, the court of appeals held that the district court was incorrect to rule that rotation across lines was an essential function of the inspector job. The court of appeals noted "that (i) the shaker table inspector position does not exist in order that inspectors may rotate; that (ii) implementing or not implementing the rotation scheme would appear to have no effect on the number of employees required to operate the shaker tables; and (iii) rotating is not a highly
specialized function and Turner was not hired for her rotating ability." The court also noted several facts that "weigh against a finding that rotation itself is an essential function of the shaker line position: (ii) the written job description for the shaker table inspector position contains no reference to rotation; (iii) little time– presumably only a few seconds– is actually spent rotating from machine to machine each hour; (v) the collective bargaining agreement makes no reference to the rotating of shaker table inspectors; and (vi) in the past, shaker table inspectors have not rotated." In light of these facts, the court of appeals concluded that a jury must decide whether rotation was an essential function of the plaintiff's job.


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