On February 18, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (which hears cases from Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) affirmed a district court decision granting the town of Brookline, Massachusetts’s motion for summary judgment in a case brought by a former garbage collector. The former employee brought his action alleging that Brookline violated his equal protection rights in terminating his employment. The Court’s decision, which is rooted in Brookline’s efforts to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff’s disability, provides a helpful guide for employers on navigating complex accommodation requests.
The plaintiff was first hired into Brookline’s Department of Public Works (“DPW”) as a laborer in 2009. The DPW was split into five divisions, and the plaintiff was assigned to the Sanitation Division. Brookline 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 against lifting heavy objects and working for more than six consecutive hours. Brookline initially accommodated the plaintiff by giving him less-strenuous tasks, but when the town could no longer accommodate his shortened work days, Brookline 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 Brookline determined that it could no longer accommodate the plaintiff due to his long-term work restrictions and failure to obtain a CDL. Brookline 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 Brookline’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 Brookline violated his Equal Protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The district court granted Brookline’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. If you don’t have much experience in this area, a “comparator” is another individual in the workplace, that is not part of the same protective class (in this case, rase) but is similarly situated in their set of skills, compensation, position, etc. When using a comparator, a plaintiff will attempt to show that the plaintiff was treated differently than the comparator, hopefully leaving a fact finder to determine the difference was discriminatory.
Here, 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 Brookline 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 Brookline’s reasons for termination were pretext for race discrimination, citing general claims of Brookline’s racial animus, as well as one incident in which a Brookline employee engaged in overly racist conduct. The Court again rejected this claim, noting that Brookline disciplined the employee involved in the incident in question. The Court also found that vague allegations of racial bias could not overcome Brookline’s legitimate explanations for its conduct. Instead, the Court looked to Brookline’s good faith efforts to accommodate the plaintiff’s disability through light-duty assignments, modifications to his work schedule, and a reasonable accommodation meeting.
This 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 principle of disability law – the determination of what constitutes a “reasonable” accommodation ultimately lies with the employer. As the First Court demonstrated, 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.