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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is not entitled to a new trial after a jury ruled in favor of the employer on the agency’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. The EEOC failed to prove an essential element of the claim: that the employee was qualified to perform her job duties.
Margaret Zych filed a charge with the EEOC against her employer, AutoZone Inc. Subsequently, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against AutoZone, alleging that AutoZone failed to accommodate Zych's lifting restriction and that it unlawfully terminated her employment in violation of the ADA. Following a five-day trial, a jury found in favor of AutoZone. The EEOC petitioned the court for a new trial, arguing that the jury's decision was contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. The district court denied this request, and the EEOC appealed to the 7th Circuit.
Zych worked as a parts sales manager (PSM) at an AutoZone store in Cudahy, Wis. In 2007, she injured her right shoulder at work and underwent two years of physical therapy in efforts to recover use of this shoulder. During those two years, Zych had numerous work restrictions for which AutoZone provided accommodations. In June 2009, Zych's doctor implemented a permanent restriction, whereby Zych could not lift anything with her right arm that weighed more than 15 pounds. Approximately one month later, AutoZone determined that it could not accommodate her permanent restriction and terminated Zych's employment.
In order to establish AutoZone’s failure to accommodate the claim, the EEOC was required to prove that: a) Zych was a qualified individual, b) AutoZone was aware of her disability and c) AutoZone failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. In finding for AutoZone, the jury had determined that the EEOC failed to prove the first element of the claim: that Zych was qualified for her position. Under the ADA, a "qualified individual" is one who, with or without a reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions (or fundamental job duties) of the position.
In considering the evidence presented at trial, the appellate court reviewed testimony from former PSMs who had worked at the same location as Zych. One former manager testified that when he accepted the position as a PSM, he understood that it involved heavy lifting. To that end, he testified that lifting and moving were a "regular part" of the job. Further, he stated that a PSM could need to move items at the store and items brought in by customers at least 30-40 times each day. A second former PSM testified that assisting customers required regularly retrieving items from the store, carrying items from the store to customers' cars and even holding items up for customers' inspection. He further testified that many of the items to be carried, such as car batteries, containers of antifreeze and motor oil, brakes, and radiators weighed significantly more than 15 pounds. In addition, PSM job duties included participating when managers organized "planograms," which at times required all products to be removed from the shelves, rearranged and restacked. Moreover, PSMs were expected to participate in "truck days" in which all employees were expected to lift product from the delivery trucks to restock the store. Finally, AutoZone presented a written job description for PSMs which explained that PSMs were expected to frequently lift items of up to 75 pounds.
The appellate court determined that the jury's verdict was not against the manifest weight of evidence and that from the evidence presented, a reasonable jury could have concluded that heavy lifting was an essential function of the job. Because Zych could not lift more than 15 pounds, she could not perform the essential functions of her role as a PSM. The EEOC made a final argument, attempting to compare Zych to another employee at the Cudahy location who was partially paralyzed and could only lift with his right arm. The appellate court, however, rejected this argument and determined that the employee was not a valid comparator because the employee worked part time and would, therefore, never be alone in the store. Further, although he was partially paralyzed, this employee had no official lifting restriction. Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed the district court's decision to deny the EEOC's petition for a new trial. The court further noted that, although the EEOC presented some evidence inconsistent with the jury's verdict, there was not enough evidence in its favor to warrant a new trial.
EEOC v. AutoZone Inc., 7th Cir., No. 15-1753 (Jan. 4, 2016).
Professional Pointer: It is critical thatemployers draft job descriptions that clearly and accurately represent the essential functions and regular job duties required of a particular role to ensure that an employee's ability to perform and the availability of accommodations are evaluated against the clearexpectations and needs demanded by the position.
Candace Embry is an attorney with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Philadelphia.
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