ADA Does Not Require Light-Duty Corrections Job

Lisa Spears is a corrections lieutenant for Wakulla County, Florida. As a lieutenant, Spears supervised approximately nine officers in the medical unit, and primarily worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In November 2011, Spears was diagnosed with pre-cancer. She had her first surgery in January 2012, and, shortly thereafter, was diagnosed with cancer. She had her second surgery on March 8, 2012.

On March 16, 2012, Spears received notice from the Sheriff that all of the medical jobs at the jail were being terminated and that a private health-care provider was taking over the medical care of inmates. The notice stated that Spears’s effective termination date was April 9, 2012, and that her termination was not performance related. Spears did not apply for a position with the private provider because she did not meet the minimum education requirements.

Three days after receiving her termination letter, Spears made a written request for a transfer to the corrections department at the jail. The Sheriff responded that no lieutenant positions with the corrections department were vacant. However, the Sheriff stated that a “Shift Detention Deputy” position was available and directed Spears to respond if she wished to accept the position.

Spears instead made another written request for reassignment and informed the Sheriff for the first time that she had cancer and was undergoing cancer treatment. Spears again requested transfer to a vacant lieutenant position. The Department’s HR director stated that, due to the medical issues identified by Spears, Spears would need her doctor to review the detention deputy job description and certify that she could perform the job’s duties.

Spears underwent radiation therapy, and eventually exhausted her FMLA leave. Spears was unable to work full shifts and her therapy posed unpredictable health problems. After several months, the HR manager informed Spears that, because Spears was unable to perform the essential job functions of her position as a detention deputy, her employment would be terminated effective July 13, 2012.

Spears sued the County, claiming that it failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. According to Spears, because she proposed facially reasonable accommodations that the Sheriff rejected, the Sheriff was obligated to engage in an interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation existed that could be made.

The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and dismissed Spears’s lawsuit. The Court began with the proposition that “the employee bears the burden of identifying an accommodation that would allow her to perform the essential functions of her job. Where the employee fails to identify a reasonable accommodation, the employer has no affirmative duty to engage in an ‘interactive process’ or to show undue hardship.

“In this case, Spears identified the following two potential accommodations that the Sheriff could have offered: (1) Transfer to a non-shift, light-duty, or part-time position until she was able to return to full-time work; and (2) an extension of her leave by using donated leave from other employees. With regard to the first accommodation, undisputed record evidence shows that no vacant position was available as a lieutenant or supervisor when Spears requested a transfer or before she was terminated. Spears may have believed that such a position existed at the time, but she has offered no supporting evidence. Although transfer to a vacant position may be a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances, the employer does not need ‘to bump another employee from a position in order to accommodate a disabled employee.’

“In addition, it would not have been reasonable for the Sheriff to accommodate Spears by altering the detention deputy position to make it light duty and part-time or non-shift until she was cleared to return to full-duty work. We have held that the ADA does not require an employer to reallocate job duties in order to change the essential functions of a job.

“We conclude that Spears has not shown a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the ability to work shift hours and a consistent schedule was an essential function of an available position with the Sheriff. The job description for the detention deputy position lists, among other ‘performance standards,’ ‘arriving on time’ and ‘working the entire shift.’ Detention deputies were on fairly rigid, rotating shift schedules of 12 hours, requiring Spears’s timely presence on a consistent basis. Accommodating Spears’s request would have caused uncertainty in scheduling, caused other officers to be held over from previous shifts or called into work on their days off, and increased the amount of overtime others worked.”

Spears v. Creel, 2015 WL 1651646 (11th Cir. 2015).