Court to EEOC:  “Teamwork” Does Not Replace Performing Essential Functions of Position

By Marti Cardi, Matrix VP-Product Compliance & Gail Cohen, Director-Compliance & Employment Law

In a case against auto parts retailer AutoZone, the EEOC asserted that AutoZone should accommodate an employee with a disability by enforcing its “teamwork” company policy.  Problem is, according to the court, it is “a common practice for employers to promote cooperation and teamwork amongst their employees.”  This practice does not relieve an employee from performing the essential functions of her position because she expects other team members to perform those functions.

On January 4, 2016, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict in favor of AutoZone and rejected the EEOC’s claim that declining to accommodate its former employee constituted disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA).”  EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc. (7th Cir. Jan. 2016)

The Facts

Margaret Zych was a Parts Service Manager (“PSM”) for AutoZone at one of its retail locations.  Zych sustained a work-related injury and AutoZone accommodated her for a number of temporary work restrictions.  Ultimately, her doctor opined that she was permanently restricted from lifting more than 15 pounds with her injured right arm.  AutoZone maintained that lifting in excess of 15 pounds was an essential function of the PSM position, concluded it could not accommodate that restriction, and ended Zych’s employment.

The EEOC’s “Team Concept” Approach  

At trial, the EEOC argued that the essential function of the PSM position was customer service.  To refute this, AutoZone presented testimony from several employees who had occupied the PSM position in the same location and demonstrated that lifting in excess of 15 pounds was an essential function.  On the job, the PSM had to lift in excess of 15 pounds upwards of 30 times per day, including resetting the store layout, assisting customers in many tasks such as loading merchandise in their cars, unloading delivery trucks, and more. In addition, the job description specified in detail that the position required “constantly” carrying items up to 50 pounds and “frequently” lifting of items up to 75 pounds.  The job description also provided more details about lifting, twisting, and rotating required in the position.

The EEOC argued that lifting was a “marginal” function and based this argument on (1) verbiage in the employee handbook encouraging employees “to ask for help when needed” when lifting heavy items and (2) that one of the criteria on which an employee’s performance was assessed was “teamwork” and whether the employee “helps the team succeed.”  There was also evidence presented that, at times, other employees had helped Zych lift heavy items.

The EEOC argued that this occasional assistance with lifting translated to a “team concept” work environment and attempted to rely on a case in which this model was accepted.  That case, the 7th Circuit observed, involved a totally different work environment – one in which members of a bridge crew, regularly and in the “normal course” of performing the crew’s joint tasks, divvied up the necessary tasks based on their abilities, preferences, and limitations.

In rejecting the EEOC’s approach, the 7th Circuit concluded that lifting was an essential function of the PSM position and that, because Zych could not perform that essential function with or without reasonable accommodation, she was not a “qualified individual with a disability.”

Pings for Employers

The AutoZone case is a good reminder of two key points in assessing an employee’s essential functions.

  • It is important to have a good detailed job description, setting forth the essential functions of positions.  (And note that this is very helpful in administering FMLA leaves as well!)
  • AutoZone was realistic in its assessment of the PSM position and was able to prove that based on prior workers’ experience, lifting occupied a significant portion of the PSM’s work time and contribution.

The ADA regulations state that, in determining the essential functions of a position, considerations include the employer’s judgment, the amount of time performing the function at issue, the work experience of prior employees in the same position, and the written job description.  29 C.F.R. §1630.2(n)(3).  AutoZone was able to rely on all of these elements to defeat the EEOC’s creative attempt to recast its PSM position.  Moreover, those job descriptions are critical to managing the ADA interactive process effectively and to identify solutions to enable the employee, if possible, to remain in her position.

Matrix can help!

Matrix’s ADA Advantage leave management system and our dedicated ADA accommodation team helps employers maneuver through the accommodation process.  We will initiate an ADA claim for your employee, conduct the medical intake if needed, assist in identifying reasonable accommodations, document the process, and more.  Contact Matrix at 1-800-866-2301 to learn more about these services.

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