Recently, the Fourth Circuit issued an opinion in an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation case, Elledge v. Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC[i]. The case shows the importance of employers paying close attention to the ADA interactive process and making good faith efforts to accommodate employee disabilities.
In this case, Chuck Elledge sued his employer, Lowe’s, under the ADA for failing to accommodate him in his job and refusing to reassign him to a job of equivalent stature. His job as a director required extensive walking between stores, and his doctor restricted him to no more than four hours of walking per day after a series of surgeries. Lowe’s agreed to these restrictions temporarily and gave him a motorized scooter to use during store visits. Elledge required subordinates to drive him from store to store without the company’s permission. When it became clear that Elledge would not be able to continue in his current position, Lowe’s discussed other career options with him, including less demanding and lower-paying positions. Elledge rejected this and applied for lateral director positions. When he was denied, he sued, claiming that Lowe’s should have either accommodated him in his current director position or reassigned him to an equivalent position.
The Fourth Circuit ruled Elledge failed to show he could perform the “essential functions” of his job “with or without reasonable accommodation.” They also affirmed the lower court’s ruling that he had not shown he was qualified for the jobs to which he applied before filing suit, which was necessary for him to prevail.
Key takeaways for employers:
- During the interactive process, employers must pay careful attention to the accommodation needs of disabled employees and make good faith efforts to explore what may allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job.
- Ensure that job descriptions are consistent with job requirements and clearly identify essential functions (including physical requirements).
- Employers have discretion in identifying and offering accommodations as long as they are reasonable and effective in meeting the needs of the individual.
- Acceptance of temporary doctor restrictions doesn’t bind an employer to adopt them as permanent accommodations and is not an admission that making them permanent is reasonable.
- Disabled employees must be afforded certain preferences, but not to the disadvantage of their coworkers. Preferential treatment should be extended “as necessary to provide them with the same opportunities as their non-disabled colleagues.”
- Employers are not required to remove essential functions or split them across multiple employees, or require other employees to work harder or longer.
- There are two types of job restructuring that the EEOC has recognized as potential accommodation: (1) reallocating or redistributing marginal job functions that an employee is unable to perform because of a disability; and (2) altering when and/or how a function (essential or marginal) is performed.
- Employers may explore other accommodations before considering reassignment.
If you have any questions about this Fourth Circuit case or best practices for ADA accommodations, the employment law attorneys at Poyner Spruill are here to help.
[i] Elledge v. Lowe’s Home Centers, LLC, No. 19CV1069 (4th Cir. November 18, 2020).