U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit
676 Fed. Appx. 863
January 18, 2017
Keywords: retaliation, reasonable accommodation, Title I, essential functions
This case concerns the concept of “essential functions” under ADA Title I. Essential functions are the tasks considered to be most important to the job. In order to sue under the ADA, an employee must be able to perform all of these functions, with or without reasonable accommodations. In this case, the court used the employer’s job description to determine what the functions were.
Another element of the case was retaliation. Retaliation occurs when a person is fired for exercising their rights. In this case, the plaintiff was fired shortly after requesting an accommodation for her disability. Requesting an accommodation is a right under the ADA. However, the court did not find the firing to be related to the request. They also held that a plaintiff who cannot perform the essential functions of the job cannot succeed on a retaliation claim.
Plaintiff had limitations that made it difficult to walk, kneel, or stoop. She was fired from her position as a groundskeeper for Morgan County. She alleged disability discrimination under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). She also alleged that her firing was retaliation. The Court found that Plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA. This was because she could not perform the essential functions of the job. They relied on the employer’s job description to determine what those essential functions were.
They also rejected Plaintiff’s retaliation claim. They reasoned that there was no causal connection between Plaintiff requesting a reasonable accommodation and her firing. They also held that Plaintiff was not a qualified individual under the ADA, which meant she could not bring the retaliation claim.
Bagwell developed serious knee issues during her time there. They were severe enough that she could only stand or walk for a third of the day. She also was limited in her ability to walk across uneven or wet surfaces. However, shifting between standing, walking, and sitting increased her tolerance to physical activity.
Bagwell describes her job as mainly focused on cleaning the bathrooms and removing trash. However, the written job description included many other functions for the position of the groundskeeper. These include “any function needed to maintain the park,” construction work, and picking up tree limbs. Morgan County agrees that these functions are not often performed. However, they still consider them possibly necessary on any given day. Further, they contend that it is not predictable when certain functions will need to be performed.
Morgan County began the termination proceeding against Bagwell before she asked them for a reasonable accommodation. She did request accommodation at her termination hearing. However, the next day, she was fired.
Bagwell subsequently sued Morgan County, alleging disability discrimination under title I of the ADA. Specifically, she alleged that she was entitled to a reasonable accommodation, that she was regarded as disabled, and that her employer retaliated against her after her request for a reasonable accommodation. The district court granted summary judgment for Morgan County, and Bagwell appealed.
In order to be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, Bagwell must show that she was a qualified individual. A qualified individual is someone who can perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Thus, if a plaintiff is unable to perform an essential function of the job with a reasonable accommodation, they are not a “qualified individual.”
The essential functions of the job are determined differently in each case. They are based on several factors. Some factors include the employer’s determination of what is essential, a written job description, and time spent performing the functions. The court noted that they find the employer’s determination of what is essential to be the most important.
In this case, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that all the roles listed in the job description were essential functions. This was the same conclusion the district court below reached. Bagwell argued that many of those tasks were rarely performed. However, the Court found that these functions could be required on any given day. They also found that Bagwell’s vision of the job seemed to be what she wanted the job to be, not what it actually was. Therefore, it was reasonable for Morgan County to expect that a groundskeeper would be required to perform any and all duties found in the listed description. The Court then affirmed the District Court’s decision that the essential functions included everything from the written description.
Bagwell must demonstrate that there was a reasonable accommodation that would allow her to perform the essential functions of the job. A reasonable accommodation could include job restructuring, modification of schedules, acquisition or modification of equipment, or reassignment to a vacant position. However, employers are not required to change the essential functions of the job.
Although Bagwell proposed many reasonable accommodations throughout the litigation, the Court held that she still would not be able to perform the essential functions of the job. For example, Bagwell requested the use of an All Terrain Vehicle throughout the day. However, the Court found that this accommodation would not allow Bagwell to perform several functions. For example, she still would not be able to walk on uneven or wet surfaces.
Further, Bagwell identified no accommodation that could help her perform frequent, repetitive actions, like cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash. These functions involved repetitive movements, which would lead to swelling and pain in her knees.
The Court did find that some accommodations, such as an ATV or other adaptive equipment, could help improve her endurance. However, even with these, nothing would allow her to consistently perform the repetitive actions that were required of a groundskeeper.
Therefore, the court found that Bagwell was not a qualified individual under ADA Title I.
For retaliation, Bagwell must show 1) that she participated in a protected activity, 2) she suffered an adverse employment action, and 3) that there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action. Exercise of a legal right, such as requesting an accommodation under the ADA, satisfies part 1. Bagwell’s firing satisfies part 2, because it is clearly an adverse employment action.
Bagwell argued that part 3 was satisfied because she was fired one day after she requested an accommodation. However, the court did not see a connection between the request and the firing. First, they point to the fact that termination proceedings were underway prior to Bagwell’s request for an accommodation. Second, the court held that it was correct to dismiss the retaliation claim because Bagwell was not a qualified individual.
The court upheld the District Court’s decision in favor of Morgan County Commission. They held that Bagwell was not a qualified individual under ADA Title I. That was because she could not perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Further, because there was no causal link, and because Bagwell was not a qualified individual, the court held that Morgan County did not retaliate against Bagwell by firing her.
Determining the “essential functions” of the job is a key aspect of this type of claim. In this case, the court placed significant weight on the employer’s job description. Despite evidence that many functions of the job were rarely performed, the court still found the employer’s description of the job to be the “essential functions.” This is significant because deciding what the “essential functions” are often decides the case. Here, the 11th Circuit showed that they sided with the employer when deciding the essential functions of a job.
Another significant aspect of this case is the court’s decision on retaliation. The court decided the issue of retaliation on two separate grounds. First, they found that there was no “causal connection.” Second, they found that Plaintiff was not a qualified individual. However, under most civil rights laws, a retaliation claim does not require success on the underlying claim, in this case the issue of “qualified individual.” Further, the legal definition of retaliation makes no mention of an actual disability, or of a qualified employee.
In this case, the Court could have dismissed the retaliation claim based only on their finding of no “causal connection”, which was the focus of their analysis. However, they also included the second line of reasoning in the decision. The court required a plaintiff to prove that they are a qualified individual under the ADA to be successful on a retaliation claim.
Endorsing the lower court’s decision based on the “qualified individual” theory puts the 11th Circuit out of step with some other federal circuits. The 4th Circuit, in Lamb v. Qualex, Inc., noted that the district court misstated the law when they dismissed a retaliation claim on the basis that the employee was not a qualified individual. Similarly, the 6th Circuit, in Baker v. Windsor Republic Doors, held that an employee does not need to be a qualified individual with a disability in order to pursue a retaliation claim under the ADA.
However, the 5th Circuit uses the same type of reasoning seen here. In Moss v. Harris County, the court rejected the plaintiff’s retaliation claim, holding that an employee must be a “qualified individual” in order to succeed on a retaliation claim. The 5th Circuit reached this decision simply because the plaintiff was not a qualified individual. They did not even consider the elements of retaliation described above. Moss v. Harris Cnty. Constable Precinct One, 851 F.3d 413 (5th Cir. 2017).