Not pulling any punches, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued a decision finding against a disabled former Burger King franchise employee, explaining that although its admittedly harsh decision was a “lesson straight out of the school of hard knocks,” “[n]o matter how sympathetic a plaintiff or how harrowing his plights, the law is the law and sometimes it’s just not on his side.”

Caribbean Restaurants, LLC operates Burger King restaurants throughout Puerto Rico.  In 2011, one of its assistant managers, Victor Sepulveda-Vargas, was attacked at gunpoint while making a bank deposit for Caribbean, hit over the head, and his car stolen.  Not surprisingly, this terrifying ordeal left Sepulveda with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.  When he was ready to return to work, Sepulveda asked Caribbean to accommodate his disability by allowing him to work a set schedule, rather than the standard manager schedule that rotates during the week through all three work shifts.  At first, Caribbean agreed to Sepulveda’s request because it believed the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) required it.  But Caribbean later reconsidered and informed Sepulveda that it could not continue to have him work on a set schedule, explaining that working a rotating schedule was an essential function of the assistant manager position.  Sepulveda then sued, alleging that Caribbean failed to reasonably accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA. 

The main issue before the First Circuit was whether Caribbean violated the ADA when it denied Sepulveda’s request for a set schedule in lieu of a rotating schedule.  Because modified work schedules have been held by many courts to constitute a reasonable job accommodation, Sepulveda argued that Caribbean’s denial of his requested schedule was unlawful.  He claimed that a rotating schedule was not an essential job function, and that Caribbean should have continued to honor the set schedule request as it initially did.  At trial, Caribbean produced evidence that the rotating schedule was an essential job function, including that all other assistant managers worked a rotating schedule, and that the rotating schedule was stated in the newspaper job listing and the company’s assistant manager job description.  Sepulveda admitted at trial that the rotating schedule operated to distribute managerial responsibilities, including working undesirable, late-night shifts, equally among all management personnel.

After confirming that Sepulveda was indeed disabled for purposes of the ADA, the First Circuit noted that neither Caribbean’s initial, mistaken interpretation of the ADA (that it required the company to provide a set schedule as an accommodation) nor the fact that it went above and beyond the ADA’s requirement by initially granting Sepulveda a set schedule waived its right to assert that the rotating schedule was an essential function of the assistant manager position.  The Court further agreed with Caribbean that a rotating scheduled was an essential function of the assistant manager position.  Thus, the Court held the company was not required to accommodate Sepulveda by providing a set schedule, and therefore, it did not violate the ADA when it denied his request.

The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to permit qualified, disabled employees to perform the essential functions of the job.  However, where, as here, the requested accommodation serves to eliminate an essential function of the job, the ADA does not require that an employer do so.  In that situation, the employee is not a qualified individual, and thus not protected by the ADA, because he or she cannot perform the essential job functions, even with the requested accommodation.  This case is a good reminder that while broad in its protections, the ADA does have its limits, and employers may lawfully decline to provide an employee’s requested accommodation if it would eliminate an essential job function.