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ADA Does Not Protect Where Employee Cannot Adhere to Safety Requirements

General Dynamics employed Sheila Holmes as a shelter fabricator, a position requiring the use of heavy equipment and machinery. The company required employees working with this type of equipment to wear steel-toed shoes. Holmes has diabetes and brachumetapodia, a condition characterized by short or overlapping toes. Holmes notified the company that her conditions made it difficult to wear steel-toed shoes. The shoes could cause foot sores or ulcerations, possibly leading to amputation or loss of life. For many years, the company allowed Holmes to wear tennis shoes based on a doctor’s note explaining why she could not wear the required shoes. After an audit noting another employee’s failure to wear the required shoes, the company decided to strictly enforce the steel-toed requirement. The company worked with Holmes to find safety shoes that accommodated her medical conditions and would also meet the safety requirements. Holmes rejected each suggestion. Ultimately, the company concluded it must terminate her employment. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In an unpublished decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA did not protect Holmes in this situation. The ADA protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on disability. To be “qualified,” an individual must be able to perform the essential functions of a position with or without accommodation. The parties did not dispute the necessity of the company’s safety standard and that Holmes could not wear the shoes. The court concluded that Holmes did not meet the ADA’s “qualified” individual standard. That Holmes performed her position without the steel-toed shoes for an extended period did not establish it as a reasonable accommodation. The court dismissed her claim.