In Godfrey v. Globe Newspaper Co., Inc., the SJC recently affirmed the dismissal of an employee’s claim of disability discrimination, finding his employer had no obligation to assign an essential function of his position to another employee. Nor was the employer obligated to give him a light duty assignment where the employer had not previously given such accommodation to others in the same position.

Douglas Godfrey, an assistant press foreman for the Globe Newspaper Company, was seriously injured when he fell while working. When Godfrey returned to work following his injuries, he was unable to climb the press machines that produce the Globe’s newspapers. Shortly after Godfrey returned to work, the Globe terminated his employment because he purportedly failed to submit his workers’ compensation payments to the Globe, who paid Godfrey his full salary during his leave. After his termination, Godfrey, without acknowledging his termination, sent a letter to the Globe seeking a light duty assignment to accommodate his inability to climb the press machines. The Globe refused.

Godfrey filed suit in Superior Court, asserting among other claims that the Globe had violated Massachusetts General Laws ch. 151B (Chapter 151B) by not accommodating his handicap. The Superior Court granted the Globe’s motion for summary judgment on all claims, but the Appeals Court vacated the Superior Court’s decision on the Chapter 151B claim.

Affirming the Superior Court’s decision in favor of the Globe on the handicap discrimination claim, the SJC concluded that Godfrey was not a qualified handicapped person because he could not perform the essential functions of his position, with or without a reasonable accommodation. First, the SJC determined that climbing the press machine was an essential function of the position based on Godfrey’s own admission that it was an essential function. As Godfrey could not perform that function, the SJC ruled that he was not a qualified handicapped person. The Court also held that the Globe was not obligated to assign Godfrey’s responsibility for climbing the press machine to another employee because elimination of an essential function is not a reasonable accommodation. In addition, the SJC found that since the Globe had not previously offered a light duty assignment to an assistant press foreman, it was not obligated to offer light duty to Godfrey because creating a new position is not a reasonable accommodation.

This decision shows that under Chapter 151B, an employer need not reassign an essential function to accommodate a disability. It also provides guidance on light duty assignments. Before granting light duty to a position for the first time, the employer should be aware that doing so may impact the employer’s obligations when faced with similar requests in the future.