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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Autozone

December 30, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 1:07-cv-01154-John A. Gorman, Magistrate Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hamilton, Circuit Judge.


Before MANION, SYKES, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

From 1999 until 2004, John Shepherd worked as a parts sales manager at AutoZone, a vehicle services company, in Macomb, Illinois. In 2005, AutoZone terminated Shepherd's employment after keeping him on medical leave involuntarily for over a year. The Equal Employment Opportunity Com-mission filed this suit on Shepherd's behalf under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213.

The EEOC alleged that AutoZone violated the ADA in three ways: first, by failing to accommodate Shepherd's physical limitations from March 2003 until September 2003; second, by discriminatorily denying Shepherd the opportunity to work after September 2003; and third, by terminating him in retaliation for filing charges against the company. The district court granted summary judgment for AutoZone on the first claim, finding that the EEOC had not shown that Shepherd had a disability within the meaning of the ADA as is required to demonstrate a failure to accommodate. A jury later ruled in favor of AutoZone on the discriminatory treatment and retaliation claims. The district court then denied the EEOC's motion to alter the judgment and for a partial new trial.

The EEOC appeals only the district court's grant of summary judgment on the failure-to-accommodate claim. It argues that there are genuine issues of material fact whether Shepherd had a disability and whether AutoZone therefore violated the ADA by failing to reasonably accommodate Shepherd's known physical limitations. Because we find that a reasonable jury could conclude that Shepherd had a disability under the ADA, we reverse and remand the case for further proceedings.

Facts and Procedural Background

John Shepherd began working for AutoZone in April 1998 as a salesperson in AutoZone's store in Fort Madison, Iowa. In April 1999, he was promoted to parts sales manager and transferred to the store in Macomb, Illinois, where he remained a parts sales manager until he was fired in 2005.

As a parts sales manager, Shepherd's responsibilities included working closely with customers and engaging in "manual tasks" such as routine cleaning and maintenance of the store, stocking shelves, and moving merchandise. At each store, daily tasks were distributed randomly through a computer-generated assignment system to the employees on duty, including the parts sales manager, though the store manager maintained discretion to re-assign tasks.

Prior to his work at AutoZone, Shepherd had sustained an injury to his back that limited his ability to carry out many activities requiring physical exertion. He experienced onsets of debilitating pain, referred to by the parties as "flare-ups," when carrying out tasks that required him to lift things or to twist or rotate his torso. During a flare-up, Shepherd's neck and back would swell and he would sweat profusely. Headaches, which also could lead to vomiting, often accompanied the swelling.

Beginning in 1998, Shepherd received medical treat-ment from Dr. Marc Katchen, who described Shepherd's impairment as myofascial tenderness, an intermittent condition caused by tightening of the muscles upon certain movements. The parties disagree about exactly when Shepherd disclosed his condition to AutoZone management. Shepherd's supervisors knew about his condition no later than March 2002, though they may have known as early as 1998, the year he joined the company.

Shepherd's impairment led to his taking medical leaves of absence of one to three weeks in January 2001, October 2001, June 2002, and March 2003. When Shepherd returned to work in July 2002 after his third leave of absence, he provided his supervisors with a medical evaluation prepared by Dr. Katchen. The evaluation listed physical restrictions that Dr. Katchen recom-mended for Shepherd if he felt unwell. Based on Dr. Katchen's recommendation that he avoid twisting his upper body, Shepherd requested permission to refrain from mopping. Although store managers Terry Wilmot and Steve Thompson knew of the restriction, they informally accommodated Shepherd only some of the time. Wilmot and Thompson would sometimes re-assign mopping tasks from Shepherd to other employees, though district manager Steven Smith pressured them not to give Shepherd "any preference."

After Shepherd's leave of absence from the end of March 2003 through the beginning of April 2003, Dr. Katchen again prepared a medical evaluation for Shep-herd's AutoZone supervisors. The doctor recommended that Shepherd never mop or buff the floor. When Smith learned of this evaluation, he told Shepherd that he would not be able to return to work with such a restriction. Dr. Katchen then amended his prescribed restriction to allow Shepherd to return to work, changing it from "never" to only "occasionally."

On September 13, 2003, Thompson instructed Shepherd to mop the floor. Shepherd injured himself while wringing out the mop and was again placed on medical leave. In December 2003, Shepherd underwent an independent medical examination in connection with a workers' compensation claim then pending against AutoZone. The medical examiner found that Shepherd's September 2003 injury had resolved and that he could return to work with whatever restrictions were in place prior to his taking leave. On January 16, 2004, Dr. Katchen also authorized Shepherd's return to work with increased medical restrictions, including a lift limit of ten to nineteen pounds, a limitation on time spent standing, and a prohibition on upper body twisting. Despite these two medical evaluations, AutoZone did not allow Shepherd to return to work, instead keeping him on involuntary medical leave until February 2005, when the company discharged him.

The EEOC filed a complaint on Shepherd's behalf in the Central District of Illinois. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ยง 636(c), the parties consented to have their case decided by a magistrate judge. AutoZone moved for summary judgment on all of the EEOC's claims. Relevant to our review, AutoZone contended in its motion that the EEOC had not shown any failure to accommodate Shep-herd between March and September 2003 because it had not proved that he was disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The district court agreed, finding that Shep-herd was not substantially limited in the major life activity of caring for himself prior to September 2003 and, as a result, could not be considered disabled under the ADA. The court concluded that the EEOC was therefore unable to establish a failure-to-accommodate claim ...

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