Massachusetts Federal Court Issues Decision that Heavily Protects Massachusetts Disabled Employees

The Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as its Massachusetts state law equivalent, prohibit employers from discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Those laws, unlike other anti-discrimination laws, also require employers to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations so that they may perform their job duties. Having said that, these laws only protect disabled employees who are also “qualified individuals,” meaning that they “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” Put differently, for an employee to present a failure-to-accommodate claim to a jury, she must establish (1) that she is disabled, (2) that she could perform the job’s essential functions either with or without a reasonable accommodation, and (c) that the employer knew of her disability, yet failed to accommodate it.

These types of cases tend to focus on whether a function is “essential,” and whether an accommodation is “reasonable.” Employers don’t need to compromise on “essential” job functions. But a function is not “essential” just because an employer says so. On April 4, 2019, Judge Sorokin of the United States District Court, in the case of Incutto v. Newton Public Schools, elaborated on the concept of “essential job functions,” and, in doing so, provides support for employees who claim that full-time attendance is not an essential job function.

Irene Incutto worked at Newton Public Schools as elementary school teacher for well over a decade. Ms. Incutto suffered from fibromyalgia and brought suit against her employer, alleging that Newton Public Schools failed to accommodate her disability by denying her repeated requests to work on a part-time basis. Ms. Incutto also alleged that Newton Public Schools retaliated against her in a number of ways.

Newton Public Schools argued that Ms. Incutto was not a “qualified individual” because she could not perform the essential job function of full-time attendance. Ms. Incutto claimed that full-time attendance was not an essential job function. Before rendering his opinion in the issue, Judge Sorokin explained that a function is “essential” if it is fundamental to a position. Judge Sorokin identified the following factors to consider when determining if a function is essential: (1) employer’s judgment, (2) job descriptions, (3) consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function, (4) the experience of prior employees, and (5) the work experience of current employees.

Judge Sorokin consider the following facts when determining if full-time time attendance was essential for an elementary school teacher:

Pro Employer

  • Explained to Ms. Incutto at her interview that the job was full-time,

  • Teachers were required to be present on Monday-Friday from 8:20 am to 3:00 pm,

  • Ms. Incutto agreed she could not perform her job from home.

Pro Employee

  • Ms. Incutto was able to ‘job share’ at times in the past,

  • Other teachers were able to ‘job share’ at different times in the past,

  • Newton Public Schools offered job-sharing and part-time positions to its teachers.

The Court ultimately decided that, based on these facts, it wasn’t clear that full-time classroom presence was an essential function of Ms. Incutto’s job. According to the court, a jury could determine that Ms. Incutto’s job was “elementary school teacher,” rather than “full-time teacher.” According to the court, things may have been different if the school was able to establish that continuity with a single classroom teacher is essential or that scheduling considerations preclude accommodation for partial attendance / job sharing.

The Court also held that Ms. Incutto could take her retaliation claim to a jury, holding that the following could be considered adverse employment actions for retaliation purposes: negative job evaluations, refusal to consider for lateral transfer, and assignment to a certain job.

Here at Steffans Legal we have extensive experience helping employees and employers in navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act and requests for reasonable accomodations. Contact an attorney today.