REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION: Lifting restrictions weigh down employees’ ADA claims

by McAfee & Taft
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liftingTwo recent court decisions considered whether employees who had permanent lifting restrictions were “qualified individuals” entitled to relief under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Employee with permanent lifting requirement not a qualified individual

Charlesetta Jennings worked as a Support Services Assistant (SSA) for a law firm. Her job mostly consisted of printing, copying and scanning, and a wide range of tasks that varied from day to day, such as setting up conference rooms, delivering the mail, shipping packages, and making deliveries. Jennings was the only SSA assigned to work at certain locations or on Saturdays. The job description for SSA included “lifting or moving items weighing up to 75 pounds.” After experiencing a side effect due to breast cancer treatments, Jennings’s doctor set a permanent 20 pound lifting restriction for her. After providing her with six months of leave, the law firm terminated Jennings.

After the EEOC brought a lawsuit on Jennings’s behalf, the primary question became whether she was a “qualified individual” under the ADA. To succeed on her ADA claims, the EEOC not only had to show that Jennings was a “qualified individual” under the statute, but that she had also suffered discrimination based on her disability. A “qualified individual” is an individual who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

The EEOC faced the uphill battle of establishing that Jennings could meet the essential functions of her job, although her job description purported to require her to lift 75 pounds – something she admittedly could never again do.

The EEOC first attempted to show that Jennings could meet the essential functions of the job by claiming that only copying, printing and scanning were the essential functions of her job, despite the job description. The court did not buy this claim, considering both Jennings and other SSAs testified their tasks varied, and that Jennings had performed tasks other than printing, copying and scanning. Also, SSAs sometimes had to work alone at a location, performing all the tasks that needed to be done, including those that required lifting. The court held that the 75 pound lifting requirement was an essential job function.

The EEOC next suggested that Jennings could meet the lifting requirement of the job with her proposed accommodation of having other employees help with lifting and allowing Jennings to perform only the non-lifting tasks of the job. The court was not crazy about the idea of Jennings avoiding many of her tasks by passing them to coworkers, noting that “[i]t is not a reasonable accommodation to excuse her from all these tasks” because doing so would force the employer to “create a modified light-duty position, which the ADA does not require.” Additionally, since Jennings was at times required to work alone, this suggested accommodation would require the employer to assign another employee to those shifts to help with lifting, thus reallocating the essential functions or requiring the employer to hire another person to perform an essential function of Jennings’s position. The court held that neither reallocating essential functions nor hiring an additional person would be a reasonable accommodation.

The court concluded that “Jennings is not a qualified individual under the ADA because she cannot lift more than twenty pounds, which is an essential function of the SSA job, and because the EEOC has not identified any reasonable accommodation that would allow her to perform this essential job function.” Therefore, the EEOC was not entitled to continue with its ADA claim against the law firm.

Employee with permanent lifting requirement is a qualified individual

A few days later, an Arkansas court also considered permanent lifting restrictions in the context of an ADA case. Gerald Hamilton had been employed 40 years with Ortho Clinical Diagnostics as a field engineer when he suffered an on-the-job back injury. As a field engineer, Hamilton maintained, repaired and installed medical equipment. He worked independently in the field.

The job description for field engineer stated that engineers “routinely handle objects weighing up to 25 lbs and on occasion may be expected to lift objects weighing up to 50 lbs.” Field engineers were instructed during training not to lift in excess of 51 pounds. However, another document, called a “job analysis worksheet” showed that Hamilton’s job required him to “seldom lift or carry items weighing 51 to 100 pounds” in addition to frequently carrying items up to 25 pounds and occasionally lifting or carrying objects up to 50 pounds. This inconsistency in internal documents would come back to haunt the employer.

Before returning to his job, Hamilton underwent a functional capacity examination to determine his capabilities. The examination showed that he could lift up to 50 pounds occasionally, but could not lift over 50 pounds. Hamilton’s doctor determined he had a permanent restriction preventing him from lifting more than 50 pounds. Ortho Clinical Diagnostics determined that Hamilton’s 50 pound restriction could not be accommodated, and terminated his employment.

After being terminated, Hamilton sued his employer, bringing a variety of claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Arkansas state law. During the course of the lawsuit, Ortho Clinical Diagnostics became aware of the inconsistency between the lifting requirements outlined in the “job analysis worksheet” versus the training and job description for field engineers. That inconsistency, combined with the evidence from Hamilton and other field engineers as to their actual job duties, led Ortho Clinical Diagnostics to do what no employer wants to do in court: admit that it was wrong. Specifically, Ortho Clinical Diagnostics was forced to admit that “lifting over 50 pounds was not an essential function of Hamilton’s job.”

At this point Ortho Clinical Diagnostics attempted to pacify Hamilton by offering him reinstatement as well as a check for his back pay during the termination period. Hamilton did not accept the check and continued with his lawsuit.

Like Jennings, Hamilton first needed to show that he was a “qualified individual” under the ADA – namely, that he could perform the essential functions of the field engineer job with or without reasonable accommodation.

Based on this definition, the court had no trouble deciding that Hamilton was a qualified individual under the ADA. After all, he could perform all the essential functions of the job, particularly when the employer admitted that lifting over 50 pounds was not required. Therefore, Hamilton was able to proceed with his ADA claims against the employer.

Lessons learned

The two cases at first seem contradictory in that both employees had permanent lifting restrictions, but one was held to be a qualified individual and one was not. The key here is in the definition of “qualified employee”: someone who can, with or without accommodations, still perform the essential functions of his or her job. Jennings could not do so with her lifting restriction, but even with his lifting restriction, Hamilton could do the job. This is an important reminder of how the ADA truly requires individualized assessments on a case-by-case basis, as no two employees’ disabilities are likely to produce identical challenges. While it may be tempting to treat all employees with lifting restrictions the same way, employers should focus on the employee’s abilities as compared to the essential job functions to determine if there is any way a lifting requirement may be reasonably accommodated.

These cases are also an important reminder to employers to make sure job descriptions and other internal documents are consistent, up to date, and accurate. In the first case, Jennings’s law firm employer was able to show that the 75 pound lifting requirement listed on the job description was an accurate reflection of what an employee actually needed to be able to do. On the other hand, Hamilton’s employer was left in the uncomfortable position of having its foot in its mouth in front of the court when it realized the document it had actually matched Hamilton’s abilities but did not accurately reflect the job requirements for a field engineer. Even more embarrassingly, it was inconsistent with the employer’s own job description and training materials. Reviewing job descriptions to make sure lifting and other requirements were clearly spelled out and matched reality and other documents might have kept Ortho Clinical Diagnostics from firing Hamilton in the first place – or at least would have headed off his lawsuit at the “qualified individual” stage, like the other case.

  • EEOC v. Womble Carlyle Standridge & Rice LLP, 2014 BL 178305 (M.D.N.C. June 26, 2014)
  • Hamilton v. Ortho Clinical Diagnostics, 30 AD Cases (BNA) 212 (E.D. Ark. July 2, 2014)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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