A recent federal-court decision under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) highlights the challenges for employees and employers in navigating the reasonable accommodation process. In this case out of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the employee claimed that his employer, Lowe’s, failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation and forced him out of his director-level position.
The employee had worked for Lowe’s since 1993, most recently as a Market Director of Stores. In that role, he oversaw a dozen stores, and his job required him to visit two stores each day. He worked between 50-60 hours per week, and had to do a great deal of walking and driving. In 2014, the employee had a serious knee surgery. When he returned to work, his doctor restricted him to walking no more than four hours per day and working no more than eight hours total per day. Lowe’s agreed to this schedule and provided him with a motorized scooter to use during store visits. The employee refused to use the scooter, though he did have colleagues drive him between stores.
Lowe’s later learned that the employee’s work restrictions would be permanent. At that point, the company told him that Lowe’s would not make the accommodations permanent, and they urged him to take a less physically demanding position. The employee was not willing to accept a lower-paying job. He applied for two other director-level positions, but Lowe’s rejected him for those roles. The employee then took early retirement and left his employment.
The employee filed suit under the ADA in federal District Court. The Court dismissed his claims, finding that walking, driving, and working more than eight hours per day were essential functions of his position. Since there were no accommodations that would permit him to carry out those essential functions, the employee could not prove that Lowe’s violated the ADA. The employee appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which upheld the dismissal of his case. On the reasonable accommodation issue, the appeals court held that the employee’s refusal to use the motorized scooter and his resort to measures outside of the offered accommodations, such as having a co-worker drive him, demonstrated the unworkability of accommodations.
The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations that will enable disabled employees to carry out their job functions. However, what amounts to a reasonable accommodation and whether an employee’s requested accommodations are feasible are determined by courts on a case-by-case basis. In this case, had the employee taken advantage of the accommodations Lowe’s offered, it might have strengthened his claim. On the other hand, if Lowe’s had been more flexible in moving the employee to a comparable position, it might have avoided the lawsuit. It’s important for employers and employees to seek legal advice throughout the accommodations process in order to navigate this complex situation successfully.