Last year’s ADA amendments broadened the definition of what constitutes a disability under the law, making it harder for employers to defend lawsuits. But a recent Sixth Circuit decision reminds us that employers still have discretion in determining the essential functions of a job and whether a reasonable accommodation exists to perform those functions. In Johnson v. Cleveland City School District, a teacher with cervical myelopathy, a condition with symptoms similar to those of a stroke, became unable to control her classroom. In particular, she could no longer yell at students (referred to by the school as “verbally controlling resistant students”). The court accepted the district’s argument that yelling during class was an essential function of the job. It further deferred to the district’s decision to terminate Ms. Johnson, based on its determination that no reasonable accommodation existed. Ms. Johnson’s insistence that she could control her classroom in some alternate way notwithstanding, the court gave the employer wide latitude in ascertaining how the job needed to be performed.
This case is good news for employers. But, they need to remember that the key in dealing with employees with disabilities is engaging in the “interactive process” and trying to come up with a workable reasonable accommodation. Here, the employer did just that.