Physically Returning To Work Is Not Enough To Establish As a “Qualified” Disabled Person for Disability Discrimination Claim

Breast cancer awareness

Hercules Liftboat Co., LLC hired plaintiff, a female, to serve as the cost controller/estimator in its Gulf of Mexico Dry Dock Department. She was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer and went on disability leave. She eventually returned to work cancer-free but on a five-year medication regimen. She later testified that her medication “made it, basically, impossible to work,” causing her to delegate her job responsibilities to her two subordinates. Hercules advised plaintiff that it was eliminating her position, and she sued Hercules claiming that she was fired because of her disability in violation of the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law, which provides that “[n]o otherwise qualified disabled person shall, on the basis of a disability, be subjected to discrimination in employment.”

Plaintiff fled the required elements of a disability discrimination claim and later amended her complaint to add ERISA claims, for which she demonstrated that she was unfit to work after returning to Hercules. Her ERISA claims were dismissed, and Hercules moved for summary judgment, urging that the record established that plaintiff was not “otherwise qualified” at the time of her termination. Hercules was granted summary judgment, and plaintiff appealed.

Hercules conceded that plaintiff was disabled, but argued that her admissions precluded her from demonstrating that, at the time of her termination, she could perform the essential functions of her employment position with “reasonable accommodation,” as required to render her “otherwise qualified.” Plaintiff’s pleadings, testimony, and exhibits, showed that her post-cancer medical treatment “nearly destroyed… [her] concentration skills,” and rendered her “unable to perform all the material duties of [her] regular job,” “[un]able to perform eighty percent of her job duties,” and “[un]able to perform any job.” Plaintiff attempted to bridge the inconsistency between her factual admissions and her current litigation posture by noting that she actually returned to work, which, according to her, demonstrated that she was able to function in her job “with the accommodation of her underlings.”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the mere fact that an employee is “physically able to return to work” does not establish her as “qualified.” Further, the court found the fact that plaintiff’s subordinates performed her job duties after she returned to Hercules was hardly evidence that the company could have furnished reasonable accommodations; rather, if an employee cannot perform the essential functions of her job without assigning those duties to someone else, she cannot be reasonably accommodated as a matter of law. Thus, the Fifth Circuit found Hercules entitled to summary judgment.

Bell v. Hercules Liftboat Co., LLC, 12-30843, 2013 WL 1459129 (5th Cir. 4/11/2013).