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What Do You Think: Was Dozing Detention Officer Still Qualified for Job?

26 Jul, 2023 Chris Parker

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Pearsall, TX (WorkersCompensation.com) – A worker can successfully sue his employer under the ADA for failing to accommodate a disability only if he was qualified for the job.

One case addresses whether an employee’s inability to complete extremely long shifts because of a new medical diagnosis means the employee is suddenly unqualified.

The case involved a detention officer at an immigration detention center in south Texas who kept nodding off on his drive home after long shifts. His employer, a private prison company, required officers to sometimes work double shifts, so that they regularly worked 12 or 16 hours in a 24-hour period. The officer said this happened about three or four times a month.

The job description, which the company wrote prior to the officer being hired, stated that officers, at minimum, would need "to work overtime as required" and to "work up to sixteen (16) hours within a rolling 24 hour period.” This was partly because, when officers had to take a detainee to the hospital, other officers needed to fill in. The collective bargaining agreement noted the same requirements.

The officer was having difficulty sleeping at night, was falling asleep during the daytime, and was having nightmares. He was eventually diagnosed with sleep apnea. On his doctor’s recommendation that he could not work more than 12 hours at a time, he asked the company to accommodate him by exempting him from longer shifts.

The company declined and eventually terminated him.

The officer sued the company, alleging that it violated the ADA.

To establish a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA, an employee must show that: 1) he has a disability; 2) he is qualified for the job; and 3) he was subject to an adverse employment decision because of his disability. To be qualified, the worker must be able to do the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

Was the officer qualified?
A. No. The job description and CBA showed the 16-hour shifts were necessary.
B. Yes. He could do the job; he just needed flexibility concerning his shifts.

If you chose A, you sided with the court in Cueller v. GEO Group, Inc., No. 22-50135 (7th Cir. 07/13/23), which held that the officer failed to assert an ADA claim because he couldn’t do an essential function of the job, which was to sometimes work 16-hour shifts.

In determining whether a job function is essential, the court observed, courts place heavy emphasis on the employer’s perspective. They also focus on any description of the job that was written prior to hiring the worker.

Here, both the job description and CBA made it clear that a critical part of the job was the ability to work up to 16 hours within a 24-hour period.

Further, there was evidence that this overtime work was a necessary part of the officer's role because the facility needed to maintain full staffing at all times. The company would need to ensure that other officers could fill in as needed.

“And while [the company] often had officers volunteer for such overtime, if there were not enough volunteers, other officers would be required to complete that overtime, which could require the officer to complete two back-to-back 8-hour shifts,” the 7th Circuit wrote.

Because the officer could not perform an essential function of the job either without accommodation, or with the only accommodation he requested, he was not qualified for the job.

The court affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment to the company.


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