In a recent disability discrimination case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is not entitled to a new trial against AutoZone because it failed to prove that the employee it represented was qualified for her job. EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., 7th Cir., No. 15-1753 (January 4, 2016). Affirming a jury verdict in favor of AutoZone, the Court found that there was sufficient evidence to find that the employee, who had a permanent 15-pound lifting restriction, could not perform the essential functions of her position as an AutoZone parts sales manager (“PSM”).
Margaret Zych began working at an AutoZone retail store in Wisconsin in 2005. In 2007, she injured her right shoulder. She underwent treatment for this injury for the next two years, and AutoZone accommodated her lifting restrictions. In June 2009, Zych’s doctor permanently restricted her from lifting anything with her right arm that weighed over 15 pounds. A month later, AutoZone terminated Zych’s employment because it could not accommodate this permanent restriction.
The EEOC sued AutoZone on Zych’s behalf for failure to accommodate her restriction in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq. Under the ADA, the EEOC had to show three elements: (1) Zych was a qualified individual with a disability; (2) AutoZone was aware of her disability; and (3) AutoZone failed to reasonably accommodate Zych’s disability. Id. After a five-day trial, the jury found that the EEOC failed to prove the first element.
In affirming the verdict, the Seventh Circuit noted that, under the ADA, a qualified individual must be able to perform the “essential functions” of the job. Id. These are the fundamental duties of the position, as opposed to the marginal functions. Op. at 3. Although the EEOC argued that lifting items was a marginal function, evidence at trial revealed that PSMs lift items at least 30 times a day, regularly retrieve items for customers that are between 25 to 75 pounds, and routinely restock supplies over 15 pounds from delivery trucks. Additionally, the PSM job description states that the employee “frequently” lifts items that are up to 75 pounds. The Court therefore found that the jury reasonably could conclude that lifting items over 15 pounds was an essential function of Zych’s position, rendering her not qualified for an accommodation under the ADA.
Interestingly, the EEOC also argued that it should have been allowed to present a “team concept” instruction to the jury. Under this theory, the EEOC asserted that if employees work in a team, the fact that one team member cannot perform all the functions assigned to the team does not mean that he or she cannot perform her essential functions. The EEOC stated that this theory applies because AutoZone presents itself as “teamwork”-based and rates employees on teamwork criteria in performance evaluations. The Court rejected this argument, finding that it is common for employers to promote cooperation among employees by using teamwork as a basis for evaluation. Concluding that an accommodation for Zych under this theory would delegate all of her essential functions to another employee, the Court hit the brakes on the EEOC’s case.