Fourth Circuit Speaks: To Be “Qualified” Under the ADA, Disabled Employee Must Comply with Valid Safety Requirements

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Seyfarth Synopsis:  Often an employer’s valid safety requirements for a position can be at odds with a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. A recent decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms employers’ right to require compliance with valid safety requirements. And it serves as a helpful reminder that employers should ensure that job descriptions and safety requirements are routinely audited, to ensure they are up-to-date, accurate, and enforceable.

When an employee has a disability that preludes her from performing a portion of her job duties, employers have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to engage with the employee and find a reasonable accommodation. But sometimes the employee’s disability prevents the employee from performing her job duties in a safe manner and in accordance with the company’s safety policies. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently analyzed this fact pattern, and it held that because the employee was unable to comply with the valid safety requirements of her position, she was not protected by the requirements of the ADA.

This decision is a welcome ruling for employers, and it also serves as a helpful reminder for employers to ensure that their safety requirements and essential job functions are up-to-date, accurate, and defensible.

Background

In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., the plaintiff brought an ADA action against her former employer. The plaintiff worked as a shelter fabricator for a number of years. Throughout the entirety of her employment, the job required the use of heavy equipment and machinery. In 2003, General Dynamics began requiring shelter fabricators to wear steel-toed shoes to protect against accidents. However, the plaintiff suffered from a disability that prevented her from wearing steel-toed shoes. Accordingly, she presented a doctor’s note explaining her condition, and for a number of years General Dynamics allowed her to wear tennis shoes instead.

This changed in July 2013 when General Dynamics received a negative audit finding after an inspector observed a different employee in the production area without steel-toed shoes. In addition, another employee had been injured a few years earlier while not wearing steel-toed shoes. Accordingly, the company decided that it needed to enforce the steel-toed shoe policy, and it instructed all supervisors to do so.

This decision presented a problem for the plaintiff. She provided a doctor’s note stating that her disability prevented her from safely wearing steel-toes shoes. The company placed her a on a leave of absence while it worked to find a reasonable accommodation. General Dynamics explored different shoe options for the plaintiff (which she and her doctors rejected), re-reviewed the steel-toed shoe requirement, and looked for suitable alternative positions. When no accommodation was possible, the company terminated the plaintiff’s employment.

The plaintiff subsequently filed an ADA claim against General Dynamics. Following discovery, the district court granted summary judgment for General Dynamics and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims. The district court found that the plaintiff was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she could not comply with the company’s valid safety requirements.

Fourth Circuit’s Decision

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order. The Fourth Circuit explained that the ADA protects “qualified individuals” from discrimination on the basis of disability. Under the ADA, a qualified individual is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds.”  And the Court held that the plaintiff was not a qualified individual because she was unable to comply with a valid safety requirement.

In doing so, the Fourth Circuit drew a distinction between whether the plaintiff could perform her essential job functions and whether the plaintiff could comply with a valid safety requirement. The Court recognized that in addition to essential job functions, it must also consider General Dynamic’s valid safety requirement when analyzing the plaintiff’s claims. The Court explained:

[T]he ADA simply does not mandate that a safety requirement be a part of the essential functions of a position for an employer to enforce it. Rather, as long as the requirement is valid, any employee who is categorically unable to comply—as [plaintiff] and her doctors have consistently maintained that she is—will “not be considered [a] ‘qualified’” individual for ADA purposes.

The Fourth Circuit found that there was no dispute as to the validity of the safety requirement that safety-sensitive positions wear steel-toed shoes and there was no dispute that the plaintiff could not comply with the safety requirement. Accordingly, the plaintiff was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA and was not entitled to any relief.

The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that because she had performed the job for more than 10 years without wearing steel-toed shoes, she was a qualified individual under the ADA. The Court explained that just because she had performed the job without injury while not wearing steel-toed shoes did not mean that she had performed the job safely. And the Fourth Circuit rejected the argument that the plaintiff’s prior work established that an exemption from the steel-toed shoe requirement was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The Court explained:

Holding an exemption from an admittedly valid safety requirement represents a reasonable accommodation simply cannot be squared with an employer’s right to “require compliance” with such a requirement even when an employee cannot meet the requirement because of a disability. See EEOC Guidance at F., Example 45. If exemptions from valid safety policies were required as ADA accommodations, it is unclear under what circumstances an employer could ever enforce a valid safety policy.

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in General Dynamic’s favor.

Takeaways

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is welcome news for employers, but it also illustrates the importance of ensuring that all safety policies and requirements are job-related, consistent with business necessity, and, above all, defensible. Although the validity of the steel-toed shoe requirement was not before the Fourth Circuit, in many cases the validity of a particular safety requirement will be at issue. Accordingly, it is important for employers to conduct period audits of the essential functions and safety requirements of positions, to ensure those requirements are accurate, up-to-date, and enforceable.

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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