Recent Seventh Circuit Decisions Helpful To Employers Defending Against ADA Claims

By: Maital Savin, Associate

Two recent Seventh Circuit decisions could be very helpful to employers defending against disability discrimination and accommodation claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits employment disability discrimination and requires employers to attempt to reasonably accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities. Although the 2008 amendments to the ADA broadened the definition of what constitutes a disability under the ADA, in both cases, the employers were able to prevail by arguing that the employees were not “qualified individuals with disabilities” under the ADA.

First, in Carothers v. City. of Cook, 808 F.3d 1140 (7th Cir. 2015), Plaintiff alleged disability discrimination under the ADA, arguing that she was terminated from her juvenile hearing officer position because of her anxiety disorder, among other claims. The Seventh Circuit held that the district court did not err in granting Defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It held that Plaintiff could not establish that she was disabled under the ADA when Plaintiff’s disability, which prevented her from interacting with juvenile detainees, only prevented her from doing her own job, but did not restrict her from performing either a class of jobs or broad range of jobs in various classes compared to the average person having comparable training, skills and abilities.

Second, in E.E.O.C. v. AutoZone, Inc., No. 15-1753, 2016 WL 29044 (7th Cir.), the EEOC sued Autozone on behalf of Margaret Zych, alleging that Autozone violated the ADA by failing to accommodate Zych’s permanent lifting restriction and terminating her employment because of her restriction. A jury determined that Zych was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA and found in favor of Autozone. On appeal, the EEOC argued that lifting was not an essential function of Zych’s position as a manager. The EEOC cited Autozone’s handbook, which encouraged employees to “ask for help when needed.” The Seventh Circuit disagreed, noting that an employer’s promotion of team work does not constitute a reassignment of essential job functions. Autozone’s evidence included a job description clearly indicating that heavy lifting is an essential job function and consistent testimony from current employees explaining the regularity and frequency at which heavy lifting occurs on the job. The Seventh Circuit found that lifting was an essential function of Zych’s job, and given her work restriction, held that Zych was not a qualified individual under the ADA, ruling in Autozone’s favor.

Practice Tip:
Remember, to determine whether an employee has a qualifying disability under the ADA that substantially limits his or her ability to work, employers should consider not only whether an employee is prevented from performing his or her specific job duties, but is also prevented from performing a broad range of jobs compared to similarly credentialed individuals. Borrowing an example from Carothers, if a juvenile hearing officer is prevented from working with juveniles, she would not be considered to have an ADA qualifying disability because she is able to work as an adult hearing officer, a position which would be held by similarly credentialed individuals.

Additionally, employers should bear in mind they only are required to accommodate an employee’s permanent work restrictions when the employee can perform essential functions of the job. Therefore, when addressing accommodation issues, employers should carefully analyze which job functions are essential by reviewing the job description, nature of the job and duties of current employees.

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