By Erin Dougherty Foley and James Nasiri*
Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 18, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed a district court decision granting a municipal employer’s motion for summary judgment in a case brought by a former garbage man alleging race discrimination under Section 1983. The Court’s decision, which is rooted in the Town’s efforts to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff’s disability, provides an outline for employers on navigating complex accommodation requests.
The plaintiff was first hired into the Town’s Department of Public Works (“DPW”) as a laborer in 2009. The DPW is split into five divisions, and the plaintiff was assigned to the Sanitation Division. The Town requires a Commercial Driver’s License (“CDL”) to hold an advanced position in the Sanitation Division, and because the plaintiff did not possess a CDL, he was designated as a “packer,” which involved picking up and throwing barrels of trash weighing up to 100 pounds.
Shortly after starting his role as a packer, the plaintiff suffered a right shoulder injury while throwing trash into a truck and went on workers’ compensation leave. He then re-aggravated the injury approximately 18 months later, and subsequently returned to work with restrictions on heavy lifting and working longer than six consecutive hours. The Town initially accommodated the plaintiff by giving him less-strenuous tasks, but when it could no longer accommodate his six-hour work days, the Town placed him on short-team disability leave. Though the plaintiff did temporarily return to work without restrictions, he continued to experience shoulder pain and eventually went on workers’ compensation leave again in 2013.
In 2015, the parties participated in a reasonable accommodation meeting, at which time the Town determined that it could no longer accommodate the plaintiff due to his long-term work restrictions and failure to obtain a CDL. The Town terminated the plaintiff’s employment, because he was unable to perform the essential functions of his role. In response, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming that the Town’s failure to accommodate his work restrictions was racially motivated. The plaintiff’s sole cause of action, while factually centered on the interactive accommodation process, alleged that the Town violated his Equal Protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The district court granted the Town’s motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the First Circuit’s analysis began with the plaintiff’s comparator evidence, which is required to state a viable claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that a white laborer referenced as “K.G.” could not perform the essential functions of his position due to a physical disability, yet the Town granted K.G. a transfer to the DPW’s Highway Division. The Court reasoned, however, that the plaintiff and K.G. were not similarly situated because K.G. possessed a CDL and was transferred to a role requiring such a license. Moreover, the Court pointed out that the plaintiff failed to identify a single position within the DPW for which he was eligible without a CDL.
The plaintiff further contended that the Town’s reasons for termination were pretext for race discrimination, citing general claims of the Town’s racial animus, as well as one incident in which a Town employee engaged in overly racist conduct. The Court again rejected this claim, noting that the Town disciplined the employee involved in the incident in question. The Court also found that vague allegations of racial bias could not overcome the Town’s legitimate explanations for its conduct. Here, the Court emphasized the Town’s good faith efforts to accommodate the plaintiff’s disability through light duty assignments, modifications to his work schedule, and a reasonable accommodation meeting.
The Fincher decision serves as an excellent case study for employers handling disability accommodation requests. Though the plaintiff took multiple disability-related leaves of absence and returned with varying work restrictions, the employer consistently abided by its good faith duty to accommodate reasonable requests. This case also underscores another important principal of disability law – the determination of what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation ultimately lies with the employer. As the First Court demonstrates in Fincher, employers that have participated in the interactive process in good faith and documented every step in the process are under no obligation to accommodate an employee where such an accommodation would infringe upon some legitimate business reason.
*James Nasiri is a law clerk with Seyfarth and Erin Foley is grateful for his assistance with this post.