Why it matters

Where an employee was unable to perform the essential tasks of his new position—and had been accommodated in his old role for 15 months—his termination did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal court judge in North Carolina has ruled. Bobby Moore suffered a stroke in 2014 and returned to his job after medical leave and extensive rehabilitation. He was unable to perform all his duties but was not reprimanded, as the employer believed his condition would continue to improve. But after he fell, Moore filed paperwork seeking an accommodation. Finding that Moore was unable to perform the essential tasks of his position, the employer denied the request and transferred him to a new position. When he caused too many errors in his new role, Moore was fired. He sued under the ADA, alleging he was discriminated against and denied a reasonable accommodation. But the court disagreed, granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment. Just because the employer had accommodated Moore in his original position for 15 months didn’t mean it had to continue to do so, the court said, particularly where Moore failed to establish he could perform the functions of the job with or without an accommodation.

Detailed discussion

As a parts clerk for Wal-Mart in Shelby, NC, Bobby Moore was sometimes required to lift and shelve products that could exceed 50 pounds in weight. In 2014, he suffered a stroke that primarily impacted the left side of his body. After medical leave and extensive physical and occupational therapy, Moore returned to his job when his healthcare provider released him to work without restrictions.

At the time of his return, Moore was still in rehab and expected to continue improving. While he could perform much of his job, supervisors observed him leaving tasks undone and not safely and properly performing certain duties. They declined to reprimand Moore in light of the full release to work and their belief he would continue to improve.

After a supervisor observed Moore fall while attempting to enter a forklift, he attended a meeting with a human resources manager and filed the necessary paperwork requesting an accommodation. Wal-Mart denied the request, saying that Moore was no longer able to perform the essential functions of his position. Instead, the employer offered him a job transfer to be a driver coordinator.

Moore accepted but experienced difficulties in adjusting to the new position and was fired in April 2016. He then filed suit against his former employer alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Wal-Mart filed a motion to dismiss.

After deciding that the plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the statute and that the defendant had notice of his disability, U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. considered whether Moore was denied a reasonable accommodation for his disability.

The plaintiff did not argue that he could still perform the essential functions of his original position with or without an accommodation or that he requested various reasonable accommodations and was denied them. Instead, he told the court that he performed the job for 15 months after recovering from his stroke before his supervisors expressed any displeasure. This demonstrated that Wal-Mart had accommodated him, Moore argued, and there was no reason the employer could not continue to do so.

But this argument missed the point, the court said, as Moore had not presented any evidence that would let a jury find a reasonable or plausible accommodation existed that would allow him to carry out the job’s essential functions. The record included a written job description listing various responsibilities, including lifting up to 50 pounds. Moore’s healthcare provider stated that he could no longer lift more than 20 pounds, while the plaintiff’s own deposition noted he relied on others’ assistance for lifting heavier objects after his stroke.

“Plaintiff is thus physically incapable of performing essential functions of his job, and the only accommodations plaintiff even alludes to are that other employees would help him carry them out (such as climbing ladders in his stead or helping him carry objects exceeding 20 pounds in weight),” the court wrote. “It is well-established that accommodations reallocating essential functions or requiring other employees to carry them out are not reasonable accommodations.”

The uncontested evidence demonstrated that the employer permitted the plaintiff to resume working while only performing certain functions of his job with the understanding he would return to full duty as his condition improved, the court noted. “However, defendant was not required to maintain that diminished level of exertion indefinitely, as the duty to provide an accommodation does not include creating a permanent light-duty position that does not otherwise exist,” Judge Cogburn wrote. “Further, there is no time limit for allowing plaintiff to work at a reduced level as he recovers.”

Further, the defendant also attempted to accommodate Moore with a new role that he could perform with the limitations imposed by his disability, a position that he accepted. “There is no dispute of material fact for a jury to resolve,” the court said.

As for the plaintiff’s argument that he was terminated for his disability, the court found the evidence again failed to support his position.

“Plaintiff does not contest defendant’s evidence of his repeated mistakes as Driver Coordinator, or that defendant showed leniency throughout the process by providing him with additional training and counseling, and by counting groups of mistakes together instead of individually in order to give plaintiff even more time to adjust to the position,” Judge Cogburn wrote. “Indeed, plaintiff admitted in his deposition to the errors and mistakes identified by defendant, and that his termination was the result of poor performance.”

Moore again directed the court’s attention to the fact that for the 15 months following his return to his old job after his stroke, his supervisors didn’t inform him of performance issues, which he said provided an inference of discrimination. But this argument was not “relevant to plaintiff’s performance as a Driver Coordinator and repeated discipline for errors resulting in his termination,” the court said. His reassignment was not based on discrimination either, the court found, as Moore could not perform the essential functions of the parts associate position.

“While sympathetic to plaintiff’s plight, his disability, and his clear desire to work, courts cannot punish defendant[s] for ‘bend[ing] over backwards’ to accommodate plaintiff by deeming defendant ‘to have conceded the reasonableness of so far-reaching an accommodation,’” the court explained. “If courts allowed such actions to proceed as plaintiff suggests, employers would be discouraged from doing precisely what was done here, which was to temporarily lessen the physical requirements of a job in hopes that the employee’s functional capacity would be restored. Such a result would clearly be antithetical to the ADA and the [Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008].”

To read the order in Moore v. Wal-Mart Stores East, click here.