Disability Law

EEOC case alleging ADA violations against Womble Carlyle nixed by federal judge

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A North Carolina federal judge on Thursday granted a summary judgment motion in an Americans with Disabilities Act case that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission brought against Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, siding with the firm.

According to the Triangle Business Journal, the firm fired Charlesetta Jennings, a support services assistant who following breast cancer treatment could not lift more than 20 pounds.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles’ order (PDF) states that Jennings was not a qualified individual under the ADA, because lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of her job. Also, the order found that the EEOC did not identify any reasonable accommodations, nixing the agency’s citations about temporary accommodations given.

Jennings, a support services assistant, performed “entry level basic operations” for the North Carolina-based law firm, the June 26 order states. The job description includes running high-volume copy machines, handing out office supplies, answering customer questions and filing.

In 2008, the order states, the firm cut the assistant staff by half. Assistants focused on certain tasks prior to the cuts, but afterward needed to handle all tasks that came up.

Jennings spent most of her time copying, scanning and printing assignments, according to the order. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, and came back to work in 2009.

A few months later, she noticed swelling and tenderness in her arm. Doctors’ diagnosed it as lymphedema stemming from the cancer treatment, triggered by heavy lifting. In 2010 Jennings submitted a doctor’s note, stating that she should not lift more than 10 pounds.

In 2011, human resources told Jennings that her job description included being able to lift up to 75 pounds. She got another doctor’s note, which stated that she should not lift more than 20 pounds. Jennings was placed on medical leave and fired six months later, with no change in her lifting restriction.

According to the order, Jennings testified that half her former colleagues could not perform all of the 14 written job descriptions for the position. She did not present evidence to dispute whether the description accurately described what support service assistants did, according to the order.

“It is undisputed that she was required to lift more than 20 pounds in connection with several aspects of her work, until her disability changed her work duties,” Judge Eagles wrote. “Indeed, the consequences of not requiring Ms. Jennings to lift more than 20 pounds shows that this function is essential, even if she personally did not spend much time doing such lifting.”

Previously in the action, Seyfarth Shaw’s Workplace Class Action Blog reports, the court issued an order (PDF) that awarded Womble Carlyle $22,900 in sanctions, for evidence spoliation. According to the post, Jennings testified in a deposition that she discarded detailed information she kept about looking for work while receiving unemployment benefits. Jennings stated that she got rid of the information a few months after the EEOC filed the lawsuit on her behalf.

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