Due to a workplace injury, an employee had a permanent 20-pound lifting restriction. She applied for a position that required heavy lifting. Did the company have to accept her suggestion on how to accommodate her restriction?
Renee Majors worked at the General Electric (GE) Bloomington, IN, plant. In 2000, she suffered a work-related injury to her right shoulder that left her limited to lifting no more than 20 pounds and precluded her from work above shoulder level with her right arm.
The restrictions were temporary at first, but they were later determined to be permanent.
In 2009, Majors was the senior eligible bidder for a temporary purchased material auditor position under the collective bargaining agreement with GE. An essential function of the position was “intermittent movement of heavy objects.”
The plant’s lead occupational health nurse reviewed the job and noted that Majors had permanent lifting restrictions and the job required movement of heavy objects. The nurse determined Majors wasn’t medically qualified for the position.
Majors told management she believed she could perform the auditor position. GE further investigated whether her lifting restrictions could be accommodated. An ergonomic specialist weighed objects the auditor would have to lift and confirmed the objects weighed more than 20 pounds.
Majors suggested a material handler could do the lifting. She also claimed the lifting restrictions no longer limited her.
GE decided Majors couldn’t perform an essential function of the auditor job because of her permanent lifting restriction and gave the job to the next senior eligible bidder.
Majors filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging she was denied the position because of her disability in violation of the ADA.
In the meantime, a permanent auditor position became open. Majors applied for that also, but was turned down by GE for the same reasons she was denied the temporary position. She filed a second charge of discrimination, alleging she was denied the permanent position because of her disability. She subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging GE discriminated against her in violation of the ADA.
GE asked a district court to throw out Majors’ lawsuit, and it did so. Majors then appealed to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
What is a reasonable accommodation?
The circuit court said the first thing that had to be determined was whether Majors was considered disabled under the revised ADA. There are three potential definitions of disabled under the act.
The court said Majors qualified as disabled under this definition: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The court said under the amended ADA, lifting is a major life activity, so Majors qualified.
Next, the court had to determine whether Majors was a qualified individual who could perform the essential functions of the job either with or without reasonable accommodation.
Majors couldn’t perform an essential function of the job without accommodation because of her lifting restriction. Under the law, Majors bore the burden of showing she could perform the job with a reasonable accommodation.
Here’s what the court determined:
“The only accommodation Ms. Majors proposed was to have a material handler lift the heavy objects for her. To 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.”
For that reason, the circuit court affirmed the district court’s decision to throw out Majors’ lawsuit.
‘Reasonable accommodation’ defined
“a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy an equal employment opportunity … examples of reasonable accommodations include making existing facilities accessible; job restructuring; part-time or modified work schedules; acquiring or modifying equipment; changing tests, training materials, or policies; providing qualified readers or interpreters; and reassignment to a vacant position.”
However, the accommodation must not create an undue hardship for the employer.
The courts are still sorting out what is and what isn’t a reasonable accommodation under the revised ADA. Let’s continue to take a look at the specific task of lifting.
JAN suggests “help with lifting or reaching” is a reasonable accommodation. But in this case, the 7th Circuit said making a materials handler available to Majors wasn’t a reasonable accommodation.
Here’s the fine line: In Majors’ case, lifting was an “essential function” of the job under a job description GE maintained for the position. The accommodation she would have needed went beyond “help.” It would have required someone else to do an essential part of her job.
Tricky? Yes. But this is one reason why it’s recommended employers keep job descriptions for all positions. Once an employer defines what are “essential functions,” of a job, it’s up to the employee to show they can do the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The 7th Circuit said having another employee perform an essential function wasn’t reasonable.
What do you think about this ruling? Have you dealt with a reasonable accommodation situation due to an employee’s workplace injury? Let us know in the comments below.
(Majors v. General Electric, U.S. Circuit Crt. 7, No. 12-2893, 4/16/13)