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Employer Able to Establish Attendance Was Essential Function

For almost 20 years, Sheena Lipp worked in one of Cargill’s meat and processing plants. She stacked and emptied boxes, labeled boxes, and moved pallets. Just five years into her work at Cargill, she was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease. The disease made it difficult for her to walk, run, or otherwise exert herself physically. She was able to work with limited restrictions however until the last two years of her employment. In the last couple of years, she needed to attend three or four doctor’s appointments that were out of town and she needed time off when her disease “flared up.” She also could not work longer than eight hours a day, five days a week, in a work environment free from dust or dirt, with help for lifting when she needed to move pallets. It was undisputed that she received accommodation for all of the above.
Cargill had a work attendance policy in place that stated “[p]unctuality and regular attendance is crucial for efficient plant operations, safety, and moral[e].” In the last year of her employment, Ms. Lipp began a nine-month unplanned leave to take care of her mother, who had health issues. For the first six months, she provided Cargill with doctor’s notes but exhausted her FMLA leave after four months. Upon returning to work several months after that, Ms. Lipp received written notices for her attendance violations and was advised she was on her “last chance for attendance.” She requested time for a doctor’s appointment one week later and was not penalized. However, when she next called in sick and did not provide medical verification, she was fired.
After hearing the case, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of her case. Ms. Lipp could not meet the minimum criteria for establishing a claim of disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She had to show she was a “qualified individual.” Cargill required regular attendance for her position. Her nine months of unplanned leave for reasons not related to her disability plus the extra day without medical support reflected an inability to perform her job. She was therefore not a “qualified individual.” The appellate court also determined that there was no failure to accommodate claim as her unplanned flare-up day just after missing months of work did not enable her to perform the essential functions of her job which was critical for the ADA to protect her.