In Williams v. Avent, Inc., 910 F.Supp. 1124 (E.D.N.C. 1995), aff’d by Williams v. Channel Master Satellite Sys., 101 F.3d 346 (4th Cir. 1996), Judge Boyle considered a plaintiff’s claim that her employer had failed to accommodate her disability under the ADA. The plaintiff injured her back in an automobile accident, which caused her doctor to classify her as having a “5% permanent partial disability of the back” and prescribe that she not lift more than 25 pounds at a time. Id. at 1129. Her employer refused to accommodate her disability or allow her to return to work in a different position, prompting her to bring this suit. Id. at 1130.
Boyle rejected the plaintiff’s claim, and ruled in favor of the defendant on a summary judgment motion. Id. at 1136. Though on appeal the Fourth Circuit upheld the judgment in favor of the defendant, on the basis that the plaintiff’s relatively minor disability was not sufficient to trigger ADA protections, the appeals court adopted a far more narrow rationale than Boyle and sharply criticized several key parts of his opinion. Williams v. Channel Master Satellite Sys., 101 F.3d 346 (4th Cir. 1996).
First, Boyle refused to consider whether the plaintiff’s suggested accommodations were reasonable. As part of her argument that her requested accommodations were reasonable, the plaintiff referenced 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9), which offers examples of “reasonable accommodation[s],” including “job restructuring . . . reassignment to a vacant position, [and] acquisition or modification of equipment or devices.” § 12111(9)(B). Boyle dismissed these examples, holding that because Congress used the phrase “may include,” the statute is “merely suggestive . . . has no force of law, and is not binding upon any court.” 910 F. Supp. at 1134. Instead, Boyle held that the courts should defer to employers in determining what is a “reasonable accommodation.”
The meaning of “reasonable” . . . is grounded in deference to an employer’s expert business decision flowing from a presumption that people behave in an economically rational manner, and an understanding that the requirement of reason is a requirement of economic rationality. While it may sometimes be less expensive for a business to incur the cost of an unreasonable accommodation rather than risk a lawsuit under the ADA, this has never been the Act’s purpose, and Courts should avoid encouraging the creation of such dilemmas by refusing to second-guess what is or is not a reasonable expense for a particular business to incur in order to maintain a particular employee.
Id. at 1133.
Boyle’s decision would give employers leave to find that even the most minor, inexpensive accommodations are “unreasonable” if an employer does not wish to go to the trouble of accommodating an employee. Certainly, it is easy to imagine a situation in which a worker would be denied even a slight accommodation because the employer believes it is easier to simply replace the worker, rendering accommodation economically “unreasonable.”
In fact, the Fourth Circuit specifically criticized Boyle’s holding that the definition of “reasonable accommodation” should be left to individual employers. It noted that the ADA makes it clear that employers must furnish reasonable accommodations “unless doing so imposes an ‘undue hardship.’” Id. at 349 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)). The court also reminded Boyle that “[c]ourts are often asked to define reasonableness” in a variety of contexts and found that Boyle’s deferral to employers was “particularly inappropriate in the summary judgment context, where a court must view evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” 101 F.3d at 350. The Court of Appeals also noted the examples of reasonable accommodation listed in the statute and criticized Boyle for suggesting that the examples did not have force of law, stating, “[o]bviously, Congress considered these types of accommodations to be reasonable.” Id.
The Fourth Circuit was also critical of the portion of Boyle’s opinion dealing with the requirement under federal law that the plaintiff prove substantial impairment in performing a “major life activity.” The court noted that Boyle had failed to address the seriousness of the plaintiff’s lifting limitation in his opinion, and “perhaps more fundamentally,” Boyle had erred “in suggesting that working is not a major life activity.” 101 F.3d at 349 (emphasis in original). The court cited Fourth Circuit precedent that established working as a major life activity, Gupton v. Virginia, 14 F.3d 203, 205 (4th Cir. 1994), and criticized Boyle for “improperly describing the regulatory language discussing working as a major life activity as ‘superfluous’” and stating that “[w]hile some courts might entertain claims under the ‘major life activity’ of ‘working,’ this Court does not.” 101 F.3d at 349.