The Seventh Circuit recently decided a case in which it found that the employee was not “a qualified individual with a disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because she could not meet the lifting requirements of her position. Based on the principle that she did not qualify for ADA protection, the remainder of the plaintiff’s disability and accommodation claims were unsuccessful.
Painstaking Documentation Pays Off
In Majors v. General Electric Co., the Seventh Circuit reviewed the ADA claim of Renee Majors, a General Electric union employee with lifting restrictions who was denied an auditor position on two occasions because she could not perform intermittent lifting over 20 pounds. The Court found that Majors was unable to establish that she was qualified to perform an essential function of her position—lifting—with or without reasonable accommodation, denying her ADA claims.
After a work-related injury in 2000 to her right shoulder, Majors was limited to lifting no more than 20 pounds. In 2009, Majors successfully bid on, due to her union seniority, a temporary auditor position that required inspecting, testing and auditing various purchased components.
General Electric’s lead occupational health nurse reviewed the award and noted that Majors’ permanent lifting restrictions would not permit her to perform the essential functions of the position, which required intermittent moving of heavy objects. In making this determination, the occupational health nurse reviewed the job description and discussed the position’s lifting requirements with a manager. The occupational health nurse also conferred with an ergonomic technical specialist and weighed several of the objects which Majors would be required to lift as an auditor, such as compressors and boxes of screws, confirming that these objects weighed more than 20 pounds. Additionally, a second nurse reviewed and confirmed the occupational health nurse’s conclusion that Majors is not qualified for the position because she could not lift objects more than 20 pounds.
Based on the nurse’s determination, Majors was not permitted to take the temporary auditor position. Subsequently, Majors applied for a permanent auditor position with the same job requirements, successfully bid for the position, but again was found unable to perform the essential functions of the position due to her lifting restrictions.
You Can’t Avoid Essential Functions
Majors claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of disability when she was not given the two auditor positions for which she bid. Additionally, Majors claimed that General Electric failed to meet its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation. However, the Seventh Circuit found that Majors could not lift more than 20 pounds and lifting objects more than 20 pounds was an essential function of the auditor position. As a result of her permanent lifting restrictions, Majors could not perform this essential job function without accommodation and, thus, was not “qualified” under the ADA.
Interestingly, the Seventh Circuit placed the burden of identifying a reasonable accommodation solely on Majors. Majors only proposed one accommodation—that a material handler would lift the heavy objects for her. The court stated that “[t]o have another employee perform a position’s essential function, and to a certain extent perform the job for the employee, is not a reasonable accommodation.” Thus, the court found that Majors was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she could not identify a reasonable accommodation that would help her, as opposed to a co-worker, perform an essential function of the position.
Although the court could have reached a different conclusion under certain state laws, the Seventh Circuit found that having another employee perform an essential function is not a reasonable accommodation and, thus, is not required under the ADA. Because Majors herself could not point to a single reasonable accommodation, she failed to prove that she was a “qualified individual with a disability.” Without establishing that she was a qualified individual, Majors’ disability discrimination claim was properly dismissed.
Despite her own failure to suggest a reasonable accommodation, Majors claimed that General Electric failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. In this argument, Majors claimed that General Electric had the burden to prove that her proposed accommodation would be an undue hardship. However, the Court found that it was not required to address the reasonable accommodation argument because Majors could not prove that she was a qualified individual entitled to the ADA’s protection.
Because she was not qualified under the ADA, Majors could not bring a reasonable accommodation claim. Moreover, the accommodation Majors sought—off-loading an essential function to another person—was unreasonable as a matter of law under the ADA. Therefore, General Electric was not required to show that the proposed accommodation would create an undue hardship.
If Majors could have proposed an accommodation which was reasonable—effective and cost-efficient—then it is possible that she could have fulfilled the ADA’s definition of a “qualified individual with a disability” because she would have been able to “perform the essential functions of the position with or without reasonable accommodation.” Because Majors was not a “qualified individual,” she was not protected under the ADA. Therefore, General Electric was not required to enter into the “interactive process” and further discuss reasonable accommodations.
General Electric won the Majors case by proving a fundamental point—Majors was not a “qualified” employee under the ADA because she could not lift greater than 20 pounds. General Electric secured its case by clearly establishing that there was a 20 pound lifting requirement which was essential to the auditor position.
Following the lead of General Electric, employers should establish whether employees and applicants can perform essential functions of the position before conflict arises by:
- Creating clear, detailed job descriptions
- Including accurate and quantifiable job-related physical requirements, especially lifting, standing, and walking requirements
- Documenting lifting requirements by weighing materials to be handled by the position
- Determine whether lifting requirements could be fulfilled by use of any external apparatus
- Keeping a log of standing times required for the position
- Measuring distances the employee will be required to walk
- Have job descriptions evaluated by supervisors and managers for accuracy
- Consider engaging the services of an occupational health nurse to evaluate whether applicants can perform the essential functions of a position.
Employers also should consider how accommodation requests are affected by applicable state law. For example, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act (“WFEA”) does not distinguish between essential and non-essential functions when considering reasonable accommodation and the obligation to enter into the interactive process. If this complaint had been brought under the WFEA, which contemplates the removal of an essential function as a reasonable accommodation, the court’s decision could have favored Majors. Fortunately for the company, Majors was subject to Indiana state law, not Wisconsin. In any event, whether in Wisconsin or not, maintaining updated and accurate job descriptions and carefully evaluating employee and applicant qualifications is critical to sound personnel management.
Although the documentation created by the defendant in this case may appear tedious and time consuming, it served the company well in establishing a solid defense against the plaintiff’s ADA claims. We strongly encourage employers with physically demanding positions to make use of these procedures as well.
If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau attorney.