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Employers cannot always make accommodations to persons with disabilities, and the obligation only arises if the employee can show that he or she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.
In the case of Atkins v. Eric Holder, Attorney General, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 12340 (4th Cir. 2013), the plaintiff was a Correctional Counselor for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He suffered from a disability due to polyarthropathy of the right knee and degenerative disc disease. As a result of his medical conditions, he had significant restrictions limiting the amount of time he could walk or stand. In fact, he utilized two metal canes and stated that sometimes he was afraid for his safety in working. His doctors indicated that his restrictions were permanent in nature.
The Bureau of Prisons terminated Atkins’s employment because it concluded that there was no way for him to safely perform his job. Atkins sued and argued that he was discriminated against on the basis of his disability. The federal district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his law suit. It laid out the requirements for Atkins to prove his case: “(1) that he has a disability; (2) that he is otherwise qualified for the employment or benefit in question; and (3) that he was excluded from the employment or benefit due to discrimination solely on the basis of the disability.”
The Court ruled in favor of the Federal Bureau of Prisons on the ground that Atkins could not show he was otherwise qualified:
There is no dispute that Atkins was disabled at the time of his termination. However, we conclude that the district court did not err when it held that Atkins was not otherwise qualified for his position. Only persons who are ‘qualified’ for the position in question may state a claim for disability discrimination.
The Court went on to explain that the plaintiff has to show that he can perform the essential functions of the employment position that he holds or desires. 42U.S.C. § 12111(8) (2006). See also 29 C.F.R. § 1630.(m) (2012). It further held:
At the time of his termination, Atkins was under several medical restrictions that significantly curtailed the time he was allowed to walk or stand. Prior to being barred from the institution, Atkins was assisted by two metal canes with forearm braces and stated that he was afraid for his safety. Because the correctional counselor position was a law enforcement position that required Atkins to physically restrain and control inmates, and no accommodation could be made to alleviate his restrictions, we conclude that Atkins did not make a prima facie claim for disability discrimination.
The case is helpful in showing the burden that a plaintiff bears in a disability discrimination suit. What made the defense easier than many other disability discrimination cases is the very physical nature of plaintiff’s job, namely having to potentially physically restrain and control inmates. An employer does not have to create a light duty job or remove essential job functions as an accommodation, and there was simply no way for the plaintiff in this case to do his job under the circumstances.