- Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, a chicken producer, did not engage in disability discrimination when it reassigned an employee with medical restrictions, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Mitchell v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, No. 3:17-cv-00609 (11th Cir. June 1, 2020)).
- Johnny Mack Mitchell sustained a rotator cuff injury due to his work hanging chickens. After he underwent surgery, Mitchell’s doctor cleared him for work with lifting restrictions. The employer’s occupational health nurse "recommended that he not return" to hanging duties and the company reassigned him.
- Mitchell sued, alleging, among other things, that the reassignment didn’t accommodate his disability. A district court granted summary judgment for the employer and on appeal, the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling. The new position had no apparent conflict with his restrictions, so "there was nothing to accommodate," the court said. Moreover, if Mitchell believed the duties did conflict, it was his responsibility to inform the employer, it added.
The ADA favors an "interactive process" to identify accommodations. In this case, the court looked favorably on Pilgrim’s actions; it remained in close contact with the employee, helping him find a position that fit his needs.
And while the law may require that an employer initiate the process if knows or should know that an employee’s disability is interfering with his or her work, that was not the case in Mitchell. Instead, the employee — as is generally the case — was responsible for alerting HR if the agreed-upon accommodation was not working.
This is why experts often recommend that HR check in at regular intervals with employees who have accommodations. "Check back in a month," Lara C. de Leon, now a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete, told attendees at a recent conference; "keep that door open so you can go back and change it if it's not working out."
Employers also can build a solid defense to claims of bias, discrimination or harassment with thorough documentation of the interactive process and all follow-ups.