Significant Lifting Restrictions Preclude ADA Claim

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did not require an employer to accommodate an employee who had such severe medical restrictions limiting the amount of weight she could carry that it rendered her incapable of performing essential job functions with or without accommodation, ruled the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

FedEx employs couriers and handlers at its distribution center in Cary, Ill. Couriers deliver and pick up packages for FedEx customers, while handlers unload packages from large shipping containers so the couriers can place the packages on their trucks for delivery. According to the job description, each handler or courier is expected to lift packages weighing up to 75 pounds by herself or himself.

The plaintiff worked for FedEx as a courier. After injuring her right shoulder, she suffered permanent restrictions that limited her to lifting 60 pounds from the floor to her waist, 15 to 30 pounds between her waist and shoulder, and 4 pounds above her shoulder or 15 pounds with both hands. With this information, FedEx notified the plaintiff that she appeared unable to perform the essential functions of a courier. Upon concluding that it could not accommodate her, FedEx terminated the plaintiff’s employment in August 2013.

In March 2015, the plaintiff received a call from a FedEx supervisor who asked her to come back to work as a handler. She accepted the offer, affirming that she was capable of “repetitive lifting and lowering of packages that may weigh up to 75 pounds in a fast-paced environment.”

The plaintiff worked for three weeks in an exemplary manner. Nonetheless, when the human capital advisor became aware of the plaintiff’s re-employment, he instructed the facility’s senior manager to accommodate her temporarily while he investigated how she had been rehired without providing updated medical documentation. The supervisors, however, ignored his command, as they had no way to accommodate her. Although she could now lift up to 75 pounds to her waist frequently, her limits above the waist remained as strict as before.

After receiving her new restrictions a few days later, the human capital advisor determined that the plaintiff remained incapable of performing the essential functions of a handler and put her on leave. An internal committee reviewed whether FedEx could accommodate the plaintiff and concluded that it could not because the handler job required lifting up to 75 pounds over the waist and overhead.

The plaintiff sued, alleging disability discrimination. Under the ADA, a covered employer is prohibited from discriminating against a qualified individual based on disability. A qualified individual is one who can perform the essential job functions either with or without reasonable accommodation. The parties agreed that lifting packages was an essential function of a handler, and that a handler must be able to lift up to 75 pounds by herself and up to 150 pounds with help.

However, FedEx asserted that a handler must be able to lift a 75-pound package overhead, whereas the plaintiff insisted that a handler would carry the heaviest packages below the waist and that no handler would or could lift 75 pounds overhead.

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The 7th Circuit concluded that the essential functions of a handler did not include lifting a 75-pound package overhead because the job description did not include such specificity. Nevertheless, the court stressed that “evidence sufficient to dispute whether a handler lifted 75 pounds overhead did not necessarily challenge lesser weights.”

Noting that the average package weighed 15 pounds and combining that information with the plaintiff’s medical restrictions, the 7th Circuit found that she was prohibited from ever lifting an above-average-weight package over her shoulders and that she could only occasionally lift some of them above her waist. As such, the court remarked that “whatever precise weight a handler might need to lift above the waist or shoulders, no reasonable factfinder could place that weight within the plaintiff’s stringent medical restrictions.”


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