The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (which oversees South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland) recently granted an employee a second chance at his ADA lawsuit claiming the city forced him to retire or accept an unwanted transfer after his request for a reasonable accommodation due to a medical disability. In doing so, the Fourth Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling in favor of the employer.
An employee working for a city was employed as a police officer. As a policeman, he wore the standard duty belts supporting pepper spray, a gun with ammunition, a taser, a baton, handcuffs, a flashlight, a radio, and a body camera battery pack. For a period of about four years, the employee felt increasing pain and discomfort when wearing his duty belt. The employee then notified the chief of police that he had a permanent nerve damage condition called meralgia paresthetica, which caused discomfort, pain, numbness, and tingling to his waist, left leg, and thigh area. This pain was attributed to the wearing of his police duty belt.
In response, the police department asked the employee to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation, the stated purpose of which was to determine if his condition required accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That examination revealed that he suffered from left thigh meralgia paresthetica, and although this condition would not pose any motor deficits that would prevent him from working as a police officer, his biggest limitation would be an intolerance for wearing the police duty belt. A few months later, the employee informed the city that his condition appeared to be permanent and that while he wished to continue serving as a police officer, his ability to wear a duty belt would be limited. He then requested a reassignment to a unit—such as white collar crimes or traffic light enforcement—that would allow him to serve as a police officer without needing to wear the full duty belt. In response, the city transferred him from a position as a patrol officer to the city’s records unit. Eventually, the employee was promoted to a detective position in the property crimes investigation unit, which allowed him to wear plain clothes.
Approximately a year later, due to an increased need for patrol officers, detectives within certain units, including the property crimes investigation unit, were required to work patrol shifts. Also that year, the job descriptions for all police officers in the city were updated to include that police officers must be able to wear a standard issued duty belt as an essential function of the position. The employee, now a detective, was placed on light-duty status, which was limited by policy to eight months, due to his inability to meet the essential job functions.
After the maximum time for working light duty expired, the employee requested an accommodation that would allow him to continue working as a detective. The city rejected the accommodation and countered with a civilian position as a logistics manager. The employee initially accepted the civilian position but retired a short time later citing the city’s refusal to accommodate his medical disability as his reason for retirement.
District Court’s Decision
Shortly after the employee’s retirement, he filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the city had failed to accommodate his disability. The city requested that the court grant the city an order saying that there were no contested factual issues and the city therefore won as a matter of law. The District Court ruled in favor of the city. The employee appealed, alleging that it was inappropriate for the city to force him to choose between retiring or accepting reassignment to a position that created problems and issues with his disability when a reasonable accommodation would have allowed him to maintain his existing or similar position.
Appellate Court’s Decision
The Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s decision, finding that, generally, unilateral transfers are inappropriate when other accommodations would allow an employee to remain in their current position. The Appellate Court further noted that the lower court did not consider the disfavored status of involuntary reassignments.
The Appellate Court focused on the four elements of proving a cause of action under the ADA: (1) that the individual has a disability within the meaning of the statue; (2) that the employer had notice of the disability; (3) that with reasonable accommodation the employee could perform the essential functions of the position; and (4) that the employer refused to make such accommodation. The Appellate Court determined that the lower court had skipped over the first three elements of the claim in analyzing the employee’s case before concluding that the employee could not satisfy the fourth element, because the city offered him a position as a logistics manager.
The ADA defines “reasonable accommodation” by way of an illustrative list of possible accommodations which may include “reassignment to a vacant position.” However, while it is listed in the ADA’s list of possible accommodations, recent case law and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance has recognized that reassignment, particularly a forced reassignment, should be considered a “last resort.” Focusing on this issue of last resort, and the district court’s failure to consider it, the appellate court overturned the lower court’s decision and sent the case back to the lower court for further analysis.
Management should remain vigilant about requests for reasonable accommodations. The ADA often requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that would not cause the employer an undue hardship. The reasonable accommodation process should be an interactive process between the employer and the employee, in which the two collaborate and develop effective possible accommodations that are reasonable within the workplace. While each situation is unique, as seen above, some accommodations are preferred over others. Employers should remain cognizant of the complexities surrounding requests for reasonable accommodations and, when faced with a difficult situation, should consider seeking experienced counsel for advice when confronted with such a request.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.