In a recent case, the Fourth Circuit found an employee was not able to establish that he could perform the essential functions of his job under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court ruled in favor of the employer after finding the company “extended reasonable accommodations” acting at every stage to ensure that the employee’s disability “did not unfairly compromise his equality of opportunity.” The case offers guidance on considerations regarding whether or not an employee is a “qualified individual” and reasonable accommodations employers must make for disabled employees.
Elledge v. Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC
In Elledge v. Lowe’s, Chuck Elledge began working for Lowe’s Home Center in 1993, ultimately working as the Market Director of Stores. Elledge had knee problems and underwent surgery in December 2014. After his surgery, walking the floors of the stores and driving from store to store became taxing. Elledge’s doctor ordered him to limit his walking and Lowe’s agreed that for a time he should abide by his doctor’s orders. Lowe’s offered Elledge the use of a motorized scooter, but he declined. Later, Elledge’s doctor recommended the restrictions be permanent. Lowe’s representatives had several conversations with Elledge to find a mutually agreeable course forward. Elledge wouldn’t be able to remain in his current position, but they spoke with him about other opportunities at Lowe’s. Elledge applied for two director-level positions, but was rejected. Elledge chose to accept Lowe’s early retirement offer and severance package.
Elledge sued Lowe’s for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). Elledge claimed Lowe’s violated the ADA and ADEA by removing him from his position and refusing to assign him to another director level position. The district court held in favor of Lowe’s, finding Elledge failed to show he was “fully qualified” and able to perform the “essential functions” of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. Additionally, the court found he failed to show he was qualified for the jobs he applied for.
Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from discriminating against a “qualified individual” on the basis of disability. A “qualified individual” is an individual that is able “with or without reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” Here, the issue at hand is whether or not Elledge was a qualified individual.
The court explained that the essential functions of a position are those functions that bear “more than a marginal relationship to the job at issue.” Considerable deference is given to the employer’s business judgement regarding what are essential functions of a position. Here, the court concluded that the essential functions of Elledge’s position included standing or walking in excess of 4 hours each day, traveling to all supervised stores, and working in excess of 8 hours each day. The official job description and Elledge’s testimony supported these responsibilities.
The court then considered whether Elledge could perform the essential functions of his job with reasonable accommodation. A “reasonable accommodation” is one that “may include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies . . . and other similar accommodations.” The court noted that the employer, exercising sound judgment, has “ultimate discretion” over the extent an employee may be accommodated through accommodation measures. Specifically, as long as an employer’s choice of accommodation is reasonable, the court will not “substitute its own judgment for the employer’s choice.”
While Lowe’s offered Elledge accommodations including a light-work schedule and use of a motorized scooter, Elledge did not take advantage of these measures. Instead, Elledge sought “informal accommodations outside the interactive process” by asking associates to drive him back and forth to store visits. The court concluded that Lowe’s acted reasonably to accommodate Elledge’s transition back to full employment by offering temporary accommodations to provide time for a full recovery. However, when Elledge’s condition didn’t improve and his doctor recommended the restrictions be permanent, “Lowe’s could not have been expected to extend such a dramatic reduction in its work requirement indefinitely.” Since being able to walk 66% of the day, transport himself to and from his stores, and work over forty hours each week were essential functions of the job, the court concluded no reasonable accommodation could have sufficed and Lowe’s similar determination was reasonable.
Elledge also argued Lowe’s violated the ADA by failing to reassign him to another comparable position. The court noted that reassignment as an accommodation is generally a “last resort.” The court found Lowe’s merit-based advancement system “disability neutral” and “reasonable, orderly, and fundamentally fair.” The court concluded that “in the ordinary run of cases, reassignment in contravention of such a policy would not be reasonable.”
What Does Elledge v. Lowe’s Mean For Employers?
Discrimination cases are decided based on the specific circumstances surrounding each issue, but this case can offer helpful guidance for factually similar scenarios. Here, the court provided more discussion on what may be considered an “essential function” of the job under the ADA, as well as what may be considered a reasonable accommodation. The court found that Lowe’s made reasonable attempts to accommodate Elledge, but Elledge essentially rejected those opportunities. In light of this, the court determined Lowe’s was not required to extend another offer for an alternative accommodation. This emphasizes the court’s finding that an employer has “ultimate discretion” over the choice among reasonable accommodations. An important take away from this conclusion is that while employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities, they do not necessarily need to make specific accommodations requested by employees.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 202-360-4230. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners and individuals across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, Loudoun County, and Prince William.