by Art Gutman Ph.D., Professor, Florida Institute of Technology

The case is EEOC v. AutoZone [C.D. Ill., No. 07 C 1154, jury verdict 6/3/11)], in which a jury returned a verdict that AutoZone failed to reasonably accommodate John Shepherd, an auto parts sales manager. The case features a prior 7th Circuit Court ruling based on the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA).

The facts of the case are that Shepherd had back and neck injuries, and due to his condition, he took several leaves from the company between January of 2001 and September of 2003. In April of 2003, after returning from a month long leave, he produced a doctor’s note indicating that he could not mop or buff the floor. When he was advised that he could not be returned to work with such a restriction, he produced a revised note indicating that he could perform these duties “occasionally.” In September of 2003, he was mopping the floor and was injured. He was placed on leave until December, when he underwent an independent medical examination. The examination cleared him to return with his previous restrictions, but his own personal doctor placed additional lifting, standing and twisting restrictions on his return. He thus remained on leave and was ultimately terminated under the company’s disability policy. The EEOC then sued AutoZone for discrimination, retaliation, and failure to reasonably accommodate. The district court granted summary judgment on the reasonable accommodation claim on grounds that Shepherd was not disabled within the meaning of the ADA, and therefore, had no legitimate claim for accommodation. A jury then ruled for AutoZone on the discrimination and retaliation claims, and the EEOC appealed only the reasonable accommodation ruling.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit overturned the summary judgment on reasonable accommodation based on the ADAAA [see 630 F.3d 635]. On appeal, the EEOC argued that Shepherd was substantially limited in the major life activity of caring for himself. AutoZone argued that Shepherd’s limitations were “temporary” and “sporadic” because he could mop and buff “occasionally.” However, the 7th Circuit cited Shepherd’s deposition in which he testified that prior to 2003, he needed assistance with dressing, brushing his hair, bathing, tying his shoes, and brushing his teeth, and ruled that Shepherd was disabled within the meaning of the ADA, as amended by the ADAAA, ruling:

The evidence the EEOC has presented is plainly susceptible to the determination that Shepherd had a disability within the meaning intended by the ADA as required to prove a failure to accommodate. Summary judgment should not have been granted on the basis that Shepherd was not disabled. We REVERSE and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

On June 3, 2011, a jury awarded Shepherd $100,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages on grounds that mopping and buffing is not an essential job function for a sales manager. This part of the award is likely to be reduced to $300,000 in line with limitations on compensatory and punitive damages awards in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Additionally, a ruling is pending on the EEOC’s request for an additional award of $115,000 in back pay.

It should be noted that the judge in this case has yet to issue a final published ruling, and we will follow this case for any updates. More importantly for present purposes, the major message from this case is that the 7th Circuit used the ADAAA to buttress its ruling on caring for oneself as a major life activity. Equally as important, employers need to ensure “essential job functions” are buttressed with evidence (e.g., job analysis data) that they truly are essential, and not marginal, as the jury concluded in this case.

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