Employee Who Requests Transfer To Less Stressful Location Gets Trial

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Employees sometimes assert that they suffer from stress or anxiety because they cannot work with a particular supervisor or coworker or at a particular busy or stressful location.  These claims are usually unsuccessful, but they may fare better when a large employer has the option or flexibility to transfer an unhappy employee. In one recent case, a court ruled that an employee who was denied a transfer from a particular location that caused him anxiety was entitled to a trial on his ADA claim. Anderson v. Lowe’s Home Ctrs., LLC E.D. Pa., No. 2:21-cv02292 (6/14/22).

Ray Anderson worked as an Assistant Store Manager (“ASM”) at the Lowe’s home improvement center in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (“Store 2378”). Store 2378 had high employee turnover and working there was considered a challenging and stressful assignment.  According to the court, Anderson said he “personally experienced life-threatening interactions with customers, including physical altercations, carjacking, and theft, due to the store’s location in a particular area in inner-city Philadelphia.” In spring 2018, Anderson applied for a transfer to a Lowe’s store in Wilmington, Delaware. Anderson was told he was ineligible for a transfer because of his job performance.

In April 2019, Anderson received his 2018 performance review. He was rated “inconsistent,” which is considered unsatisfactory.

In May 2019 several things happened. First, Anderson filed an internal complaint about his District Manager, Earika Khan, blocking his transfer to Wilmington, as well as his 2018 altercation with the District Manager about comments Khan made towards another employee. Second, because of the intensity and impact of the stress and nightmares Anderson was experiencing, Lowe’s referred him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed Anderson with anxiety and prescribed medication. Anderson subsequently requested and was promptly approved for two months of FMLA leave.

Anderson returned to work on July 29, 2019, and he was reinstated to his ASM position at Store 2378. At some point after returning from FMLA leave, Anderson asked for a transfer to a different location.  Anderson said the request was stress-related, and the work environment at Store 2378 was taking an emotional toll on him. Anderson volunteered to accept a demotion to work at a store in New Jersey nearby his home. The transfer request was denied because of Anderson’s 2018 performance evaluation. For some reason the timing and denial of Anderson’s transfer request was not clear from the record submitted by the parties, but Lowes guessed it was sometime in late July or early August 2019.

On August 19, 2019, Anderson was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). Lowe’s policy provides that employees who are on a PIP “may be ineligible for consideration” for other internal positions, including transfers. Other Lowes employees were allowed to transfer from Store 2378 around the time Anderson’s request was denied, but none were on a PIP and all had better performance evaluations.

Anderson sued Lowe’s and brought a several different claims, including the failure to reasonably accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA. Lowes filed a motion for summary judgment following discovery. On the failure to accommodate claim, there were two issues before the court on summary judgment. The first was whether Anderson was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The second was whether had failed to reasonably accommodate Anderson when it denied his transfer request.

According to the court, the record was filled with evidence that Anderson’s anxiety substantially limited his abilities to sleep and work.  Anderson testified in detail about his stress-induced nightmares, According to the Court, Anderson testified “he felt high pressure because his job required him to make business decisions every day while also dealing with people and uncertain situations that could erupt at any given time.” Lowe’s argued that Anderson was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, because he did not argue or present evidence that his anxiety exists apart from his experiences working at one specific workplace. In other words, Lowes argued Anderson was not disabled if he could do his job, but he could not do it at one specific worksite. This is similar to arguing that an inability to work for one specific supervisor because of stress caused by that supervisor constitutes a disability. This time, however, the court did not accept Lowe’s argument and found a jury could conclude that Anderson was disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

The court also found there was a genuine issue of material fact about the reason Anderson’s transfer request was denied. Lowes maintained company policy prevented it from granting the transfer. The court did not address whether that sort of reliance on company policy would be a sufficient defense when one of the requirements of the ADA may be to modify and other facially neutral company policy. Instead, the court focused on the facts that the company policy made a transfer decision discretionary even for employees on a PIP, and that it was not at all clear whether Anderson was on a PIP at the time of his request. The court also mentioned that was no evidence that Lowes attempted to accommodate Anderson by means other than a transfer, but acknowledged that there may have not been an alternative in these circumstances.

While the court granted summary judgment in favor of Lowes on several other claims, the motion was denied on the failure to accommodate claim.

No Comments
prev next
Email Updates

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.