Navigating Reasonable Accommodations: Lessons from the Fourth Circuit’s Recent UPS Case

Does either party get the benefit of consideration when an employer and an employee disagree about the choice of a reasonable job accommodation for an employee who has sustained a disabling injury? This was an issue when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed a dispute involving a UPS driver who had injured his hip and buttocks which prevented the driver from continuing to drive his assigned truck on his normal route schedule.  Hannah v United Parcel Service, Inc., 4th Cir. No. 21-1647 (July 10, 2023)

After being advised by his doctor that he had sacroiliitis (inflammation of joints in the lower back) and that he needed to avoid prolonged sitting for some time, the employee requested an ADA accommodation to drive a smaller vehicle that had a softer suspension and would provide an easier ride for him. The problem this posed was that the smaller vehicle would not adequately service his route without requiring UPS to give part of the route to another driver or requiring the employee to make multiple trips to service the route that would obligate the employee to work more than 9.5 hours in his shift which was not permitted under the collective bargaining agreement that applied to drivers such as the employee. Alternatively, the employee asked for inside work, but UPS had no such work to assign him to so as an option it offered the employee to retain his job and take an unpaid leave of absence.

The employee reluctantly took the unpaid leave of absence but when he later returned to work, he sued UPS under the ADA and alleged that the refusal by UPS to offer one of the requested ADA accommodations that he suggested was a violation of the ADA. After taking into consideration a complete record with exhibits and deposition testimony the District Court determined that there were no material facts in dispute and agreed with the employer that the employee had failed to proffer a reasonable accommodation given the limitations posed by the UPS collective bargaining agreement that covered employees such as the employee.

On appeal the 4th Circuit agreed with the District Court’s award of summary judgment to UPS. The Appeals Court articulated several principles that are important to employers when engaged in a dispute over what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. First, the Appeals Court noted that the ADA itself directs that consideration be given to the employer’s judgment as to what functions of a job are essential. In other words, UPS’s assertion that the employee needed to drive the larger vehicle to service his route did not need to be called into question assuming the required job duty was not unreasonable on its face.

The Appeals Court also stated that the “ultimate discretion” to choose among reasonable accommodations rests with the employer. The Court noted that ADA regulations include the offer of additional unpaid leave for necessary treatment. Thus, while the employee would have preferred the receipt of paid leave during the needed medical absence the Court again gave the benefit of the doubt over the choice of a reasonable accommodation to the employer.  The good news and ultimate lesson for employers in this scenario is that a reasonable accommodation plan that is well thought out and in accord with ADA principles and offered by an employer to an employee should win the day in a dispute with an employee about the choice of a reasonable accommodation.

If you are an employer that is engaged in an ADA dispute over accommodation, do not hesitate to reach out to a member of the Sands Anderson Employment Team for assistance.