By Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Howard M. Wexler

In a case we have previously blogged about several times due to spoliation sanctions imposed on the EEOC – most recently here – the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a ruling out of the Middle District of North Carolina and upheld the summary judgment dismissal of an ADA lawsuit brought by the EEOC.  In EEOC v. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, No. 14-1958 (4th Cir. June 26, 2015), the district court held that the individual the EEOC brought suit on behalf of,  Charlesetta Jennings, was not a “qualified individual” under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Accordingly, it granted summary judgment to the employer. The EEOC appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit and it affirmed.

The ruling is instructive for any employer facing ADA litigation brought by the Commission.

Background Of The Case

Jennings, a Support Services Assistant (“SSA”) for Womble Carlyle, a law firm, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. Id.  at 3. Following her treatment, Jennings developed a cancer-related condition that impairs an individual’s circulatory and immune systems. Id. As a result of this condition, Jennings was unable to lift more than 10 pounds at first, then 20 pounds after a second consultation with her doctor. Id. at 4. This was despite working in a position that not only requires, as a condition of employment, that employees lift at least 75 pounds, but also regularly requires the lifting of 20 pounds. Id.

For a time, Jennings was able to perform some of her duties while avoiding heavy lifting by modifying her lifting methods. Id. at 6. Nonetheless, she could not perform many of her SSA job duties as she was still unable to work alone and many SSA tasks required the lifting items that weighed in excess of 20 pounds. Id. at 7.

In February 2011, Womble Carlyle placed Jennings on medical leave “because she could not lift seventy-five pounds.” Id. at 8. After 6 months, with no improvement in her condition, Jennings was terminated by Womble Carlyle. Id. The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of Jennings, against the law firm, alleging that it failed to accommodate her disability and subsequently terminated her employment because of the disability in violation of the ADA. Id.

The District Court’s Decision

Even though the District Court held that Jennings could not comply with an essential function of the SSA position, it noted that she could still be a “qualified individual” under the ADA if Womble Carlyle could “reasonably accommodate” her. Id. at 9. The EEOC proposed several solutions, but the District Court found them to clash with the well-established principles that the ADA does not require an employer to either create a “modified light-duty position” or “relocate essential functions” to another employee. Id. As such, the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Womble Carlyle.

The Fourth Circuit’s Opinion

On appeal, the EEOC argued that: (1) Jennings could perform the essential functions of her job, even without a reasonable accommodation; and (2) alternatively, requiring other SSAs to help Jennings with certain job tasks is a reasonable accommodation that would have enabled her to perform the essential functions of her job. Id. at 11.

With respect to Jennings’ inability to perform the essential functions of her position, the Fourth Circuit held that the ability to lift up to 20 pounds – which Jennings could not do – was in fact an essential function of the SSA position. Id.  at 13. Notably, the EEOC noted “that an employee may typically be assigned to only certain tasks of a multifaceted job does not necessarily mean that those tasks to which she was not assigned are not essential.” Id. at 14. Although Jennings was able to perform small subset of her assignments through certain “work around methods” she devised, the Fourth Circuit reasoned that the ability to lift over 20 pounds was “inextricably tied to the vast majority of them” which rendered her unable to perform an essential function of her job, and thus she was not a qualified individual with a disability. Id. at 16.

With respect to the EEOC’s second argument – having other SSAs perform those tasks Jennings could not perform was a reasonable accommodation – the Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that excusing Jennings from all heavy lifting “would not have been a reasonable accommodation” and “requiring assistance for all tasks that involve lifting more than 20 pounds would reallocate essential functions, which the ADA does not require.” Id. at 17. As such, the Fourth Circuit held that “the unfortunate truth is that, because of Jennings disability, she is unable to perform an essential function of the SSA job without a serious risk of further injury” and therefore summary judgment for Womble Carlyle was appropriate. Id. at 17-18.

Implications For Employers

This decision serves as a good example of how courts determine whether a job duty is in fact an “essential function”, and an even better example of a court demonstrating judicial restraint to not unduly burden an employer to “reasonably accommodate” the affected employee by removing essential functions of the job. Nevertheless, employers must treat lightly and be sure that they are mindful of their obligations to engage in the “interactive process” with disabled employees in order to determine what reasonable accommodations, if any, are available without posing an undue burden.