On June 27, 2014 a Federal District Court Judge, Catherine C. Eagles, in Greensboro North Carolina, granted summary judgment for the employer in the case of EEOC v Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP (M.D.N.C, June 26, 2014) holding that the employer did not have to create a light-duty job as a reasonable accommodation in an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) case. Thereby, the judge rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) claims.
Ms. Jennings was an office support services assistant (“SSA) for the law firm of Womble Carlyle located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was diagnosed with breast cancer during her employment. Her job description required her to lift or move items weighing up to seventy-five (75) pounds. After a number of years, in 2008, Ms. Jennings developed a cancer-related condition that impaired her circulatory and immune systems. As a result she was unable to lift more than ten (10) pounds at first. Later a medical restriction prohibited her from lifting more than twenty (20) pounds. However her job required her, as a condition of employment, to lift up to at least seventy-five (75) pounds.
After a number of layoffs, the SSA staff was light, requiring the remaining employees who were SSA’s to work independently. For a time, Ms. Jennings was able to perform some of her duties, while avoiding the really heavy lifting and by modifying her lifting techniques. However, she could not perform many of her SSA job duties, as she simply could not work alone. The problem was that many of her job duties required the lifting of heavy files.
In February, 2011, Womble Carlyle placed Ms. Jennings on medical leave, as “she could not lift seventy-five pounds.” After six months with no improvement, the law firm terminated Jennings’ employment.
The EEOC brought a lawsuit for Ms. Jennings claiming that the law firm failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the ADA.
Summary Judgment Decision
Womble, Carlyle moved for summary judgment asking the Court to dismiss the case on the basis that the employee could not perform the essential functions of her job without a reasonable accommodation and that she was not a qualified individual under the ADA.. The Court agreed.
The Court reached its decision concerning whether Ms. Jennings was a “qualified individual” under the ADA by engaging in a two-part analysis:
1. Was lifting twenty (20) pounds an essential job function?
2. Can the employer reasonably accommodate this employee with regard to her lifting restrictions?
First, the Court found that lifting more than twenty (20) pounds was, in fact, an essential function of the SSA job based, in part, on the job description.
Second, the Court found that certain accommodations for Ms. Jennings would substantially modify and alter the job function to the extent that it was not reasonable for the employer as it would fundamentally change the SSA position. Specifically, the EEOC’s proposed solutions were contrary to the well-established principle that the ADA does not require an employer to either create a “modified light duty position” or “relocate essential functions” to another employee. The Court, therefore, held that the employer was not required to make such accommodations by modifying her job to create a light-duty job.
Editorial Comment: This Court decision emphasizes the importance of creating job descriptions that are accurate and detailed in setting forth the essential functions of a job, especially in the areas of lifting, standing, every day attendance, shifts and other essential job functions needed to perform the job.
Also, in cases involving disabilities, an employer must be careful to have medical restrictions documented, while engaging in an “interactive process” to show that it determined if there were any reasonable, legally necessary accommodations that it did not consider.