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Judge dismisses EEOC suit over law firm's firing of cancer survivor

Judge dismisses EEOC suit over law firm's firing of cancer survivor

A federal judge has dismissed 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.

Lifting more than 20 pounds is an essential function of the offices services assistant position at law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said a U.S. District Court judge in Greensboro, North Carolina in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, L.L.P. The ruling was issued last week, but publicized Tuesday.

Charlesetta Jennings began working for Womble Carlyle as an office services assistant in April 2000, according to the ruling. Her position's job description called for lifting or moving items weighing up to 75 pounds.

Ms. Jennings was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2008. After treatment, she was released to regular duty in May 2009, according to the ruling. But beginning in the fall of 2009, she began suffering swelling and tenderness in her left arm, which doctors said was triggered by heavy lifting.

In June 2010, her doctor submitted a note stating she should not lift more than 10 pounds. While this restricted her from working at two sites and a Saturday shift, she was able to perform other duties and was often able to lift heavy objects by breaking them up into smaller quantities, said the ruling.

After a meeting with the law firm's human resources representatives on her lifting restrictions, she obtained an updated doctors note stating she could lift no more than 20 pounds, and this restriction was permanent, according to the ruling.

In February 2011, she was placed on medical leave because she could not lift 75 pounds and was terminated in August 2011, the ruling said. The EECO filed suit against Womble Carlyle on Ms. Jennings' behalf, charging it had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate her disability and by discharging her.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles granted Womble Carlyle summary judgment dismissing the case.

“Lifting more than 20 pounds is an essential function for (office series assistants) and no reasonable jury could conduce that it was not” said the ruling. “The job description, Womble Carlyle's judgment and the consistent work experiences of (office services assistants) including Ms. Jennings all compel this conclusion.”

Even with modifications, Ms. Jennings was unable to work at two sites, work the Saturday shift, as well as performing tasks that involve lifting more than 20 pounds, said the ruling.

“It is not a reasonable accommodation to excuse her from all of these tasks, because doing so would force Womble Carlyle to create a modified light-duty position, which the ADA does not require,” said the judge in dismissing the lawsuit.

The EEOC said in a statement, “We are reviewing the decision and considering our options.”