Seventh Circuit rules on who qualifies for accommodation under ADA

On January 4, 2016, the Seventh Circuit in EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., No. 15-1753, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 13 laid down rules that would help in determining whether a qualified individual with disability is entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Herein, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a case against AutoZone Inc. for discriminating Margaret Zych of her disability. EEOC claimed that defendant failed to accommodate Zych’s fifteen pound permanent lifting restriction and terminated her unlawfully. EEOC lost at the trial, as well as in its further motion for a new trial. The Seventh Circuit too ruled that Zych was not a qualified individual with a disability and hence, her termination was not illegal or discriminatory in nature.

Zych started working with AutoZone in 2005 and was promoted to the post of Parts Sales Manager (PSM) in 2007. In July 2007, while at work, she sustained injuries on her right shoulder causing her to undergo two years of physical therapy and treatment. She had a lot of restrictions for two years, during which AutoZone co-operated. Eventually, in June 2009, her doctor permanently restricted her from lifting anything with her right arm that weighed beyond fifteen pounds. A month later, AutoZone discharged for being unable to accommodate her permanent restriction.

EEOC had alleged in its appeal that lifting was more of a marginal than being one of the essential functions for Zych’s position. EEOC substantiated its argument by mentioning another employee (although not holding the same position as Zych), and also pointed out to AutoZone’s performance reviews of its employees, reflecting an employee’s contribution to its “teamwork” and if the employee “help[ed] the team succeed.” It further stressed on AutoZone’s handbook that encouraged employees to ask for help if needed while lifting heavy objects.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed with EEOC’s allegations, but relied on AutoZone’s evidence that the PSM job description outlined heavy lifting as an essential function, further providing testimonies to that effect from former PSMs who worked in the same location as Zych explaining the regularity and frequency in which heavy lifting occurred.

The court further noted that it is a common practice for employers to promote cooperation and teamwork amongst their employees and this in no way causes distribution of labor in which substitution and reassignment of Zych’s job function as PSM would have been possible. The Court stated that in order to establish a prima facie failure to accommodate claim under the ADA, 42 U.S.C.S. § 12101 et seq., the plaintiff needed to show that: (1.) the employee was a qualified individual with a disability; (2.) the employer was aware of her disability; and (3.) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.(Id at 5)

This AutoZone decision carefully and nicely carves out good guidelines for employers when faced with accommodation of permanent restrictions that infringe upon the essential functions of a job. It is equally important for the employees to cautiously review the job description and treat the duties outlined as essential and not merely as marginal duties.



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