Designing a Flexible World for the Many: “Essential Functions” and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act

This Note explores how courts interpret the meaning of “essential functions” under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To be protected under the ADA, a plaintiff must be able to perform the “essential functions” of her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. In general, courts follow one of two approaches when interpreting this phrase. The first approach narrowly focuses on the employer’s judgment regarding which functions are essential. The second approach considers the employer’s judgment, but looks beyond to consider the broader employment relationship. This Note argues that these different approaches have led to varying levels of scrutiny, which ultimately hinders the ADA’s efforts to eliminate discrimination. This Note asserts that these different approaches exist because Section 12111(8) fails to clearly indicate which one courts should follow. As a result, courts are able to apply that level of scrutiny they consider appropriate, instead of that level of scrutiny Congress intended. To clarify the proper test that courts should follow, this Note proposes a statutory amendment to Section 12111(8). This Note concludes that this amendment is the most effective way to make Title I’s protections more robust.