7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in ADA Failure to Accommodate Lawsuit

On July 17, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor the employer-defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), in which the employee-plaintiff alleged that the defendant violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her disability.  Kotaska v. Federal Express Corporation, No. 19-2730 (7th Cir. July 17, 2020).  The defendant twice terminated the employment of the plaintiff because she could not lift up to 75 pounds.  The first time, she was limited to lifting only 60 pounds after a shoulder injury.  Eventually, her condition improved so that she could lift 75 pounds to her waist, and she was rehired.  Within three weeks, the defendant terminated her again, after it learned that her capabilities above the waist remained severely limited.

The plaintiff claimed that the second termination of her employment violated the ADA.  The district court entered summary judgment for the defendant because the plaintiff had not shown that she was a qualified individual within the meaning of the ADA.  The 7th Circuit agreed that she had not met her burden and affirmed.  Under the ADA, a covered employer is prohibited from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  A qualified individual is one who can perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  At the summary judgment stage, it is the plaintiff's burden to provide evidence such that a rational jury could find her to be a qualified individual.  Whether a function is essential is a question of fact, not law.  The employer's judgment and its job description are relevant evidence of the job's essential functions.  But the employer's judgment is not absolute.  Other factors are relevant, including the amount of time spent on a function, the experience of those who previously or currently hold the position, and the consequences of not requiring the employee to perform the function.  If an employee is unable to perform a given function, she must at least demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to whether the function is essential.  In this case, the 7th Circuit concluded that any reasonable jury would find that lifting packages at some indeterminate weight and frequency above the plaintiff's restrictions was an essential function of her job as a handler.  Therefore, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she is a qualified individual within the meaning of the ADA, so her disability discrimination claim failed as a matter of law.