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

On November 23, 2020, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service under the Rehabilitation Act, which is the equivalent of the Americans with Disabilities Act for federal employees.  Vargas v. Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General, No. 20-1116 (7th Cir. Nov. 23, 2020).  After he aggravated an old foot injury on the job, the plaintiff was placed on work restrictions that prohibited him from lifting and carrying heavy weights.  This created a problem for him because his job duties included carrying heavy loads and packages.  He requested accommodations from the employer, but without any alternative jobs for him to do, his accommodation request was denied.  Consequently, he had to take paid sick leave for several weeks and eventually went on unpaid leave.  He sued his employer under Title VII for race discrimination and retaliation, and for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act.

The district court granted summary judgment for the employer.  The 7th Circuit affirmed because the plaintiff could not perform the only job available to him, with or without reasonable accommodation, and there was no evidence that he was treated differently because of his race or that he was subjected to unlawful workplace retaliation.  The plaintiff could not establish that he was a qualified individual with a disability.  In order to establish a valid failure-to-accommodate claim, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) she was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) her employer was aware of her disability; and (3) her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.  The plaintiff failed to present any evidence that he was a qualified individual with a disability.  A qualified individual is one who can perform the essential functions of her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  Essential job functions are the fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual with a disability holds.  Whether a function is essential to a position is a question of fact, resolved by considering the employer's judgment, including any written job descriptions, as evidence.  Being able to carry mail weighing more than 15 pounds is an essential function of a mail carrier's job.  The plaintiff could not perform his job without accommodation because he was restricted to carrying no more than 15 pounds.  In addition, he could not perform the same function even with the accommodation for which he asked.  He requested that he either be limited to the collections portions of his route or be allowed to perform light duty work.  The employer rejected the plaintiff's reduced route idea, and there was no light duty work for him.  His accommodation request was not reasonable.  His reduced route idea would force the employer assign an essential function of his job--carrying and delivery heavy bags of mail--to another employee.  However, employers are not required to reshuffle staff and resources if doing so would require reallocating an essential function from the plaintiff to another worker.  The employer was also not legally obligated to create light duty work for the plaintiff when none existed.  The plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of his job, and he did not make any reasonable accommodation request that would allow him to do so.  Therefore, he was not a qualified individual.  The only accommodations that he requested were unreasonable as a matter of law.  Consequently, his failure-to-accommodate claim could not go forward.

The plaintiff's Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims also failed.  There was no evidence that he was denied the accommodation he requested on account of his race.  Finally, there was no evidence of any causal connection between his protected activity of filing a prior EEO complaint and any alleged adverse employment action, which is required for a valid Title VII retaliation claim.