Duty Overpowers Demand in Disability Discrimination Lawsuit
Jarydith Mannella was a grocery clerk at Kroger Company until an on-the-job accident caused a serious back injury. Kroger granted Mannella a two-year leave of absence. Mannella subsequently returned to work as a cashier, and requested Kroger to reasonably accommodate certain work restrictions her doctor had ordered.
In an apparent attempt to determine whether Mannella could continue to work as a cashier despite her injury, a Kroger manager interviewed Mannella about her workplace restrictions. The manager asked what items in the job description Mannella could and could not do. However, he did not observe Mannella working as a cashier to determine how she actually performed the job.
The job description listed both “essential functions,” and, separately “physical demands.” Mannella claimed that she could do the essential functions, but not the physical demands, of the cashier job. As a result of the interview, Kroger terminated Mannella for being unable to meet some of the “physical demands” listed in the cashier job description.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Kroger for failure to accommodate Mannella’s disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Kroger asked the Court to throw the case out of court. The grocery store argued that since Mannella could not perform the essential job functions of the cashier position, Kroger had no further duty to reasonably accommodate her disability.
The Court disagreed. Instead, the Court held that Kroger had failed to clearly document whether the “physical demands” of the cashier job (such as “twisting,” and “reaching”) were “essential job functions” that Mannella could not do even with accommodations—or whether Mannella could have done the essential functions with reasonable accommodations. After the Court’s ruling, Kroger settled the case for $33,000. As EEOC Trial Attorney Nedra Campbell explained:
“Federal law expressly prohibits employers from refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees with disabilities. An employer must always seriously consider whether it can make an accommodation before downgrading or firing employees.” [EEOC v. The Kroger Company of Michigan (USDC EDMI 2016) no. 14-13757]
The ADA requires employers to be flexible in determining whether workers with disabilities can perform the essential functions of their job with reasonable accommodations. To avert potential disability discrimination and related liability, employers should carefully examine what job functions are truly essential. If a job function could be removed from the job description without changing the nature of the position, that function was not essential.
But a job’s essential functions aren’t just items to check off on a list. Generally, they should accurately reflect what the job requires—not dictate how to accomplish those requirements. 29 CFR 1630.2(o) and the EEOC Enforcement Guidance specify that reasonable accommodations include adjustments to “the manner or circumstances under which the position . . . is customarily performed, that enable an individual with a disability who is qualified to perform the essential functions of that position.” A detailed illustration of how to analyze job duties for a potential modification can be found in the context of the California Supreme Court’s recent ruling on suitable seats.
Kroger went wrong by slavishly relying on a job description that dictated how Mannella should do the cashier job (“the physical demands” on paper, such as “twisting” and “reaching”), without considering whether she could still do what the job required in some other way.
Compliance training is one way employers can incorporate ADA-compliant employment practices. LawRoom’s Intersections: Harassment Prevention Training course provides a strong start in combating workplace discrimination in all its forms. If you’re unsure about how to do it, this case study on Namely, an HR-compliance startup that combined growth and culture with training, provides an inside look.