An employee who is categorically unable to comply with an employer’s valid workplace safety requirement is not a “qualified” individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even if the safety requirement is not part of the “essential functions” of the employee’s position, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has reaffirmed in an unpublished decision. Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Sys., 2020 U.S. App. Lexis 38425 (4th Cir. Dec. 9, 2020) (unpublished).

In Holmes, plaintiff Shelia Holmes began working for General Dynamics Mission Systems as a shelter fabricator in 1998. Approximately five years later, General Dynamics started requiring that shelter fabricators wear steel-toed shoes as protection from accidents. Holmes claimed it was unsafe for someone with her medical conditions – diabetes and brachymetapodia, a condition characterized by short or overlapping toes – to wear steel-toed shoes. Whenever a supervisor challenged her on it, she provided a doctor’s note and was permitted to wear other shoes.

Following a negative 2013 safety audit, and fearing repeat violations would endanger its certification compliance with various international standards, General Dynamics began enforcing the steel-toed shoe requirement in earnest. When Holmes insisted that she could not comply with this requirement, General Dynamics attempted to accommodate her by investigating various customized-shoe options and different work assignments at the company. Ultimately, the company could not identify a reasonable accommodation that Holmes would agree to, so Holmes’ employment was terminated.

Holmes sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, alleging that wearing steel-toed shoes was never an essential function of her job, that she performed her job satisfactorily for years while wearing regular shoes, and that the company had made exceptions in the past and could do so again. The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment in favor of General Dynamics.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Court determined that (1) under the ADA, employers may require compliance with valid safety regulations, even if the regulations are not listed as an essential function of the job; and (2) the fact that Holmes wore regular shoes at work for over a decade, and never experienced a serious accident or safety incident, does not prove that the safety requirement is invalid, or that exempting her from the safety regulations is a reasonable accommodation. The Court wrote, “If exemptions from valid safety policies were required as ADA accommodations, it is unclear under what circumstances an employer could ever enforce a valid safety policy.” Because Holmes is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA, she is not within the ADA’s protected class. The Fourth Circuit repeatedly cited the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, Applying Performance and Conduct Standards to Employees with Disabilities (Sept. 3, 2008) (“Employers may require employees to wear certain articles of clothing to protect themselves, coworkers, or the public.”).

As employers attempt to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, many are implementing new safety requirements – such as mask-wearing – that may trigger negative reactions from employees. Every case is different and will require case-specific legal analysis but Holmes is a timely reminder that the ADA does not require employers to grant exceptions to legitimate safety requirements.

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