Employer Prevails Against Manager with Lifting Restrictions

By Tyler J. Hall October 14, 2020
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Closeup of stack of kayaks

A fired store manager with permanent lifting restrictions was unable to show she could perform essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided. Therefore, her Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim failed.

The plaintiff, a manager for a discount sporting goods store, sustained injuries to both shoulders from 2009 through 2015. Her treating doctor assigned various temporary restrictions, which the employer accommodated, before assigning permanent restrictions in December 2015. The permanent restrictions included a 2-pound lifting limit with her right arm. Unable to accommodate these restrictions, the employer terminated the plaintiff.

The plaintiff subsequently sued the employer under the ADA. To prevail with an ADA claim, a plaintiff must prove that he or she:

  • Has a disability.
  • Is able to perform the essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation.
  • Suffered an adverse employment action because of the disability.

The district court found no ADA violation.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit first examined whether physical labor was an essential function of the plaintiff's job. To determine whether a function is essential, courts consider the specific job description for the relevant position. The job description in this case outlined essential functions that included frequently reaching above the shoulders, frequently lifting 50 pounds and occasionally lifting 100 pounds.

The court noted that the company's human resources department developed the organization's job descriptions through field research, store observation and manager interviews. The court stated that it does not "second-guess the employer's judgment in describing the essential requirements of the job."

The court also considered "the reality on the ground," including the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the functions, the amount of time an employee spends performing the functions, and the experience of those who previously held or currently hold the position. The employer's business model included various cost-saving measures, such as requiring management to regularly engage in physical labor and maximizing storage space with shelves up to 12 feet high and hooks on the ceiling for hanging inventory. Much of the employer's inventory, including canoes, was at or above shoulder height.

The plaintiff argued that as store manager she could delegate her physical labor, but the court stated that the ability to delegate a task does not render it nonessential. The employer paid higher labor costs to make up for the plaintiff's physical limitations and still experienced diminished customer service; therefore, the plaintiff's ability to delegate did not render the physical labor nonessential.

Testimony from the employer indicated physical labor ranged from 20 percent to 80 percent of the job, but the plaintiff argued physical labor was only 10 percent of her job. The court stated that a function "need not encompass the majority of an employee's time, or even a significant quantity of time, to be essential" and determined that a task making up 10 percent of the employee's time could be essential. The employer's evidence demonstrated that managers' performance of physical labor was essential to its business model.

The 7th Circuit next examined whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. The plaintiff acknowledged her 2-pound lifting restriction but pointed to two alternative opinions from medical experts, assigned in October 2015 and 2018. The court stated that the employer could rely on the treating doctor's assessment and that the relevant inquiry was whether the plaintiff could perform her job at the time she was fired, not in 2018.

Ultimately, the court stated that even with the use of available tools, "a person restricted to lifting no more than two pounds with one of her arms could not lift canoes … to their proper storage space." Therefore, the appeals court determined that the employer did not violate the ADA.

Tonyan v. Dunham's Athleisure Corp., 7th Cir., No. 19-2939 (July 20, 2020).

Professional Pointer: This case reminds employers of the importance of accurate and well-researched job descriptions. Regularly discussing a job description with employees performing those tasks can assist employers in defending disability-discrimination claims. Similarly, employers should consider the business reasons why specific tasks are considered essential. Employers armed with accurate job descriptions that reflect their business needs are in a good position to argue that a function is essential.

Tyler J. Hall is an attorney with Lindner & Marsack, S.C., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Milwaukee.

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