EEOC v. AUTOZONE (December 30, 2010)

John Shepherd was a parts sales manager at AutoZone in Macomb, Illinois. His job duties included pitching in to help with routine cleaning assignments, like mopping the floor. A computerized system assigned the jobs randomly. Shepherd had an old back injury, however, that interfered with his ability to perform these physical tasks. His head would swell, he would get headaches, and he would sweat profusely. He was receiving medical treatment. Notwithstanding the treatment, Shepherd took medical leaves on several locations between 2001 and 2003. After one such leave, he asked to be excused from the mop detail based on his physician’s physical restrictions. AutoZone accommodated his request, but only on occasion. When he returned from his 2003 leave, his physician originally recommended no mopping. He modified that restriction when AutoZone advised Shepherd that he could not return to work with the complete restriction. Shepherd suffered another incident while mopping in September of 2003. Again, he took a medical leave. Although he was authorized to return as early as December of 2003 with no greater restrictions than he had in September, AutoZone did not allow his return. Instead, it kept him on involuntary leave until February of 2005 and then dismissed him. The EEOC filed a complaint on his behalf pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint alleged that AutoZone failed to accommodate Shepherd's disability between March and September 2003, that AutoZone discriminated against him by refusing to allow him to work after 2003, and that AutoZone's dismissal of him was in retaliation for his filing charges. Magistrate Judge Gorman (C.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to AutoZone on the failure to accommodate claim, concluding that Shepherd was not disabled within the meaning of the statute between March and September 2003. He did not reach the other claims. The EEOC appeals.

In their opinion, Seventh Circuit Judges Manion, Sykes, and Hamilton reversed and remanded. The ADA requires an employer to make "reasonable accommodations" for the mental or physical limitations of a "qualified individual with a disability." A disability under the ADA is a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities." The Court concluded that a rational jury could find that Shepherd suffered from a disability in 2003. First, self-care is a major life activity and the record is replete with references to Shepherd's inability to care for himself. He needed help dressing, brushing his hair, bathing, tying his shoes, and brushing his teeth. He certainly had an impairment -- but was it substantial. The implementing regulations require a court to consider the nature, severity, duration, and expected continuing impact of an impairment. Here, the record, particularly on summary judgment, shows that Shepherd required help on an almost daily basis and experienced episodes multiple times a week. The Court had no difficulty in concluding that a reasonable jury could conclude that his impairment was substantial. Finally, the Court rejected AutoZone's contention that medical evidence was required to establish a substantial impairment. Neither the statute nor the regulations require it. The nature of the limitations and the detailed testimony were sufficient to establish the impairment and its scope.