In a case we have previously blogged about several times due to spoliation sanctions imposed on the EEOC – most recently here - the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina finally reached the merits of the case and granted summary judgment in favor of the employer.  In EEOC v. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86953 (M.D.N.C. June 26, 2014), the 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, the Court granted summary judgment to the employer and rejected the EEOC’s claim.

Background

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

Around the same time, “in response to the recession, Womble Carlyle reduced the SSA staff by nearly half.” Id. at 3. Consequently, its three law firm locations were lightly staffed, and the SSAs were often required to work independently. For a time, Ms. Jennings was able to perform some of her duties while avoiding heavy lifting by modifying her lifting methods. 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.

In February 2011, Womble Carlyle placed Ms. Jennings on medical leave “because she could not lift seventy-five pounds.” Id. at 5. After 6 months, with no improvement in her condition, Ms. Jennings was terminated by Womble Carlyle. The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. 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.

The Court’s Decision

The crux of the Court’s decision concerned whether Ms. Jennings was a “qualified individual” under the ADA. To reach this issue, the Court employed a two-part analysis. First, the Court examined whether lifting more than 20 lbs was an “essential function” of the SSA position. If it was an essential function, it had to next determine whether Womble Carlyle would be able to reasonably accommodate Ms. Jennings.

In finding that lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of the SSA position, the Court analyzed “whether removing the function would fundamentally alter that position.” Id. at 6. The Court deferred to the EEOC’s own ADA regulation in its analysis. While the EEOC disputed whether the 75 pounds requirement in the job description is accurate and claimed that Ms. Jennings job could have been limited to copying, scanning, and printing, the testimony of Ms. Jennings herself and other employees suggested otherwise. As the Court held, even assuming that lifting 75 pounds was not an essential function of the SSA position, lifting 20 pounds was unavoidable.

Even though Ms. Jennings could not comply with an essential function of the SSA position, she could still be a “qualified individual” under the ADA if Womble Carlyle could “reasonably accommodate” her.  Id. at 12. The EEOC proposed several solutions; however, the 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. at 12-3. As such, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Womble Carlyle.

Implications For Employers

This decision serves as a good example of how courts determine whether a job duty is an “essential function,” and an even better example of a court demonstrating judicial restraint to not unduly burden the employer to “reasonably accommodate” the affected employee. 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 accommodation is necessary. Suffice it to say, ADA issues remain a source of significant interest to the EEOC.