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Dismissal of breast cancer survivor's ADA lawsuit upheld


An appeals court has upheld dismissal of a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit filed on behalf of a breast cancer survivor who was fired from her law firm job because she could not lift more than 20 pounds.

The 4th U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, held that lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of the offices services assistant position at law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, according to Friday’s ruling in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P.

Charlesetta Jennings had been hired in 2000 as a “support services assistant,” whose duties included heavy lifting, and was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2008.

In November 2009, after she returned to work, she was diagnosed with lymphedema, a condition triggered by heavy lifting that affects the circulatory and immune systems. In June 2010, Ms. Jennings suffered an injury at work because of unavoidable heavy lifting, according to the ruling. She subsequently submitted a doctor’s note stating that because of the risk of lymphedema, she could not lift more than 10 pounds. Womble Carlyle accommodated Ms. Jennings’ 10-pound lifting restriction for about six months

Her supervisors testified she was often idle at work during that period because of her limitations, although Ms. Jennings testified that idle time was caused by an unpredictable daily workload.

In February 2011 Ms. Jennings provided the law firm with an updated doctor’s note stating she could lift up to 20 pounds, but the office manager concluded the list of tasks she could and could not perform remained the same even with the 20-pound limit. She was given a medical leave of absence in February 2011 and terminated when it ran out in August 2011, according to the ruling.

The EEOC filed suit on Ms. Jennings’ behalf charging the law firm with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge in Greensboro, North Carolina, ruled in Womble Carlyle’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit, holding that lifting more than 20 pounds was an essential function of the job.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit agreed.

“The unfortunate truth is that, because of Jennings’ disability, she is unable to perform an essential function of the (assistant’s) job without serious risk of further injury,” said the ruling, in upholding the case’s dismissal.

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