Hennagir v. Utah Department of Corrections and an Employer’s Ability to Circumvent the ADA

By J. Matthew Soper

In Hennagir v. Utah Department of Corrections the Tenth Circuit addressed whether “a job function that is rarely required in the normal course of an employee’s duties may nonetheless be an essential job function under the ADA.”  The issue arose after a grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant.  Barbara Hennagir brought an action against the Utah State department of corrections (DOC), alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in connection with DOC’s refusal to allow her to continue in her position without completing the required physical safety training.

The Court held, “when the potential consequences of employing an individual who is unable to perform the function are sufficiently severe, such a function may be deemed essential.  We further conclude that it is unreasonable for an employee to demand identical job duties less the disputed essential job requirement, regardless of the label given to the proposed accommodation.”

Hennigar was employed for several years as a physician’s assistant before the DOC added a physical safety-training requirement to medical positions.  The new Peace Officer Standards and Training (“POST”), includes an assessment of physical strength, flexibility and endurance, to medical positions requiring inmate contact because of previous incidents with inmates.  Hennagir was unable to complete the training because of numerous health issues. 

The Tenth Circuit first addressed the ADA claim.  An ADA claim requires a plaintiff to show: “(1) she is disabled as defined by the ADA; (2) she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation; (3) she suffered discrimination on the basis of her disability.”  The Court explained that because each element is essential, and Hennagir “cannot satisfy the ‘qualified individual’ prong, we need not address remaining elements.”

The Court determined what constituted an essential job function by first looking to “whether DOC actually requires all employees in the particular position to satisfy the alleged job-related requirement.”  The analysis is not designed to second-guess an employer: “the employer has a right to establish what a job is and what is required to perform it.”

The Court emphasizes that it “weigh[s] heavily the employer’s judgment regarding whether a job function is essential.”  In this case, the undisputed evidence demonstrated that all physician's assistants at the facility were required to be POST certified.  “The essential function inquiry is not conducted as of an individual’s hire date,” but rather, whether the job function was essential when imposed.  The Court notes DOC decision-makers unanimously support the POST certification.

In addition, the Court explained the risks associated with inmate contact “strike at the heart of another factor used to determine whether a job function is essential: the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function.”  The potential consequences of an inmate attack were severe for an employee like Hennagir who spent significant time with inmates while fulfilling her duties. 

Since the Court determined that POST certification is an essential job function, the Court then looked to whether “any reasonable accommodation would enable her to perform the function.”  The Court rejected Hennagir’s proposed accommodations because “she insisted on an ‘accommodation’ that would permit her to ‘remain in her position as a PA.’”  The Court’s determination that POST certification is an essential part of the PA job position meant than an accommodation could not waive an essential job requirement.