HR Management & Compliance

Was Pregnant Employee with Lifting Restrictions Entitled to Accommodations?

During training on disability issues, supervisors and managers need to understand that employers often are required to provide an accommodation to an employee who requests one. However, as a recent case demonstrates, there are exceptions.

What happened

In July 2010, “Pearl” was hired as an unloader at Walmart’s distribution center in Raymond, New Hampshire, to unload products from tractor trailers. The “essential functions” of her job included “unloading freight from trailer[s] manually or with power equipment.” Handling “merchandise and supplies weighing up to 60 pounds without assistance” was considered a physical activity that was “necessary to perform one or more essential functions of this position.”

Most of the freight weighed at least 20 pounds (lb), and it usually had to be unloaded manually.

About 2 months after hire, Pearl found out that she was pregnant. On October 7, her doctor imposed a lifting restriction of 25 lb but agreed to postpone putting that restriction in writing. Within a couple of weeks, Pearl told her manager that she was pregnant and about the lifting restriction but did not request an accommodation at that time.

While lifting a heavy box on November 7, Pearl pulled a muscle, saying initially that it was a “groin muscle,” later that it was a muscle in her “uterus,” and then again that it was a “groin muscle.” After Pearl went to the distribution center’s first-aid office, an HR rep drove her home and told her that her “pregnancy was a liability” and that she should request medical leave.

Pearl’s husband, who also worked for Walmart®, asked if Pearl could have a job that was less physically demanding or if she could just unload certain trailers with a forklift. HR refused.

In late November, Pearl requested an accommodation, listing “pregnancy” as her “condition or impairment” and providing medical documentation that she could not lift more than 20 lb. She asked to be assigned only to trailers that could be unloaded with a forklift or to a job that would not require her to lift more than 20 lb. Her employer declined to accommodate her, saying, among other things, that the lifting restriction prevented her from performing the essential functions of her job.

Pearl went out on medical leave and filed a charge of discrimination, alleging that her employer had discriminated against her because of her “pregnancy status” and had failed to reasonably accommodate her “medical disability.”

After her son was born in June 2011, Pearl took a 6-week maternity leave. When she returned to work, she was assigned to a different job, which required her to use a forklift to move pallets, scan and label boxes, and put the boxes on a conveyor belt.

In November 2011, Pearl pinched a nerve in her arm while putting a box on a conveyor belt. As part of Walmart’s workers’ compensation procedure, Pearl was given a “temporary alternative duty” assignment, so she could work during her recovery.

When the arm pain persisted 1 month later, HR placed her in another temporary alternative duty position.

Meanwhile, Pearl’s husband was granted a requested transfer to a Walmart distribution center in Florida in February 2012, but HR’s decision to extend Pearl’s temporary alternative duty assignment apparently prevented her from transferring under company policy.

Pearl was granted an unpaid, 2-week medical leave and moved with her husband to Florida. Her claim for workers’ compensation was denied, and she was eventually terminated for failing to provide medical documentation to support her leave.

She filed suit, alleging failure to accommodate her disability arising “from her pregnancy status” in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), discrimination based on her disability, and retaliation. The district court said Pearl did not show that (a) she had a disability under the ADA, (b) she could perform the essential functions of her job, or (c) her requested accommodations were reasonable. Pearl appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island.

What the court said

The appeals court also ruled in favor of Walmart. Excusing Pearl from manual lifting would “excuse her from having to perform an essential function [of her job]. But, under the ADA, an employer is not required to accommodate an employee by exempting her from having to discharge an essential job function.”

Regarding Pearl’s other requested accommodation (i.e., reassignment to a position that did not require her to lift up to 60 lb), the court said Pearl did not show that there were any such vacancies when she made the request, and it was her responsibility to do so.

Lang v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. (No. 15-1543) (U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Cir., 3/2/16)

Supervisors and managers need to understand that the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a “qualified individual … who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions” of his or her job.” However, if an employee cannot perform those essential functions, the employer is not obligated to accommodate him or her.

Note that if the employee is unable to perform his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation, and there is a vacant position for which he or she is qualified, the employee should be reassigned. During training, instruct supervisors and managers to consult with HR when an employee requests an accommodation so HR can make a determination as to whether an accommodation is warranted.