7th Circuit Finds that Lifting Restrictions Left Employee Unable to Perform Essential Job Functions

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified employees with disabilities. The key phrase in that sentence that is so often the subject of litigation is “reasonable accommodation.” In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit considered whether a two-pound lifting limit and a restriction on repetitive grasping and lifting arms more than 5% above the shoulder were reasonable accommodations for an employee of a regional sporting goods retailer. In affirming an order of summary judgment in favor of the sporting goods store, the Seventh Circuit found that such accommodations were unreasonable and left the employee unable to perform her essential job functions.

The plaintiff in the case, Angela Tonyan, was employed as a store manager at a Dunham’s Sports store in Wisconsin. During her employment, Tonyan sustained a series of injuries to both shoulders and left arm. After multiple surgeries and various temporary restrictions failed to remedy her condition, her doctor imposed several permanent restrictions including a two-pound lifting limit and restricting her from having to raise her arms above her head.

In response to these restrictions, Dunham’s fired Tonyan. The sporting goods retailer contended that its “lean” staffing model made physical work such as unloading and shelving merchandise essential job functions of its store managers like Tonyan. Following her termination, Tonyan sued claiming that the company violated her rights to reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The District Court found that the store did not violate her rights under the ADA and granted summary judgment to her former employer.

On appeal, Tonyan argued that physical tasks were not essential functions of her job and that she could perform her essential job functions with reasonable accommodation. The Seventh Circuit found that Tonyan’s essential job functions included lifting 50 or more pounds and being able to lift heavy items above her head. Due to her restrictions, Tonyan could not perform her essential job functions without reasonable accommodation. Tonyan argued that a reasonable accommodation would have been to allow her to delegate her heavy lifting duties to other employees. The Seventh Circuit disagreed finding that requiring an employer to reassign essential functions of an employee’s job to other employees was unreasonable.  Consequently, because of the restrictions on her movement, she was unable to perform the essential functions of her position.

The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by reiterating the requirements of the ADA to provide reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability. The Court went on to explain that a qualified individual is one who can perform the essential functions of her position with or without reasonable accommodation. Tonyan’s case, the Seventh Circuit stated, hinged on whether she could perform her essential job functions. This required the Court to determine what those essential job functions were as the parties disagreed on that issue.

Whether a job function is essential is typically a question of fact, not law. Thus, the Court was required to look at the record evidence in the case to determine if the question of fact could be answered on summary judgment. This evidence included testimony of the plaintiff, several other employees of the defendant, and importantly the job descriptions for the plaintiff’s position. All this evidence supported a finding that store managers were expected to perform manual labor that included lifting heavy objects and stocking shelves above the manager’s head.

Tonyan argued that she could and did delegate tasks such as unloading merchandise from trucks and stocking shelves so these could not have been “essential” functions of her job. This argument did not hold water with the Seventh Circuit. The Court opined that simply because a task can be delegated that does not make it non-essential. Although the Court acknowledged that managers often delegate some essential tasks from time to time, it found that requiring reassignment of essential job functions would be unreasonable as it “would equate, essentially, to reassignment or delegation of the job itself.”

The Court’s full opinion is available online here.

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