UPDATE: Oct. 4, 2021: The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will not weigh in on Holmes, leaving the 4th Circuit's ruling intact.
- General Dynamics Missions Systems did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it terminated a worker whose disability made her unable to comply with its safety requirements, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc., No. 10-1771 (4th Cir. Dec. 9, 2020)).
- General Dynamics required the plaintiff, a shelter fabricator, to wear steel-toed shoes as protection from accidents involving heavy equipment. She provided a doctor's note saying a medical condition required her to wear flexible footwear. Eventually, General Dynamics decided it had to enforce its safety policy and placed her on leave. An HR manager worked with her for two years to find compatible shoes, including custom-made shoes that the company would have "heavily subsidized," according to the court's opinion. She rejected the proposed alternatives. The employer reviewed the steel-toed shoe requirement to see if it could exempt the employee and looked for open positions that did not require the shoes. As neither option was possible, it fired her in 2016, leading to her to file a disability discrimination lawsuit.
- A district court granted summary judgment for the employer, finding that Holmes did not meet the definition of a "qualified individual" because she could not comply with her employer's valid safety requirements. The appeals court agreed. The ADA "simply does not mandate that a safety requirement be a part of the essential functions of a position for an employer to enforce it. Rather, as long as the requirement is valid, any employee who is categorically unable to comply — as Holmes and her doctors have consistently maintained that she is — will not be considered a 'qualified' individual for ADA purposes," the court said.
Holmes illustrates that if an employer has a legitimate business reason for requiring safety equipment, an employee's inability to wear that equipment because of a disability may not be protected by the ADA.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with a disability from workplace discrimination and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations that allow employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Employees must be able to carry out the essential functions of their jobs, either with or without a reasonable accommodation, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Essential functions are the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform, EEOC says, and can vary depending on the job.
The Holmes court noted that EEOC has explained that if an individual with a disability cannot comply with a dress code, including a requirement that employees wear safety equipment, the individual will not be qualified for the ADA's protections.