Court Opinion: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for June 16

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Wise v. DeJoy

The 10th Circuit affirmed the summary judgment granted to the U.S. Postal Service on a retaliation claim and remanded the case to the district court.

This case arose after a pregnant mail carrier, Sharhea Wise, asked to avoid handling heavy items based on medical advice from her doctor. The Postal Service agreed to provide help when items were too heavy if Wise told someone she needed help. On two occasions, Wise allegedly handled items that were too heavy. The Postal Service alleged that Wise hadn’t asked for help. 

A short time later, the Postal Service fired Wise and she sued under the Rehabilitation Act, arguing the Post Office failed to accommodate her and retaliated against her for seeking an accommodation.

A district court granted summary judgment to the Postal Service, and Wise challenged the rulings. 

The 10th Circuit agreed with her challenge on the failure-to-accommodate claim. On this claim, a reasonable factfinder could find that the Postal Service failed to accommodate Wise’s need to avoid handling heavy items. But the 10th Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on the retaliation claim because the Postal Service presented a neutral, nonretaliatory explanation for the firing and Wise lacked evidence of pretext.

The Rehabilitation Act requires federal employers to “meet the needs of disabled workers and . . . broaden their employment opportunities.” These needs include “reasonable accommodations” for disabled employees. A duty to accommodate exists if the employee shows a disability, the qualifications for the job, a request for a plausibly reasonable accommodation and a failure to provide the accommodation. If an employee satisfies these requirements, the employer must make an accommodation and “act reasonably in implementing [the] accommodation.”

Wise alleged that the Postal Service had failed to provide accommodations by declining to provide scales or labels stating how much the packages weighed, requiring her to handle packages that she thought were over 20 pounds, and failing to provide her with help when she had to use a heavy gurney. The district court rejected these allegations.

But based on potential inferences from the evidence presented, the 10th Circuit found the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Postal Service on the failure-to-accommodate claim involving the heavy packages and the gurney. 

Wise worked for three months before the Postal Service fired her with her manager claiming it was because she had walked off the job. When Wise walked off the job, she told the Postal Service that she was quitting. She quickly changed her mind, and the Postal Service let her return to work. Her return was short-lived and she was fired within days. Wise characterized the firing as retaliation for requesting help with heavy items.

The 10th Circuit considered if a reasonable factfinder could find a pretext to the firing.

Wise needed to show that the Postal Service’s stated reason had been “so weak, implausible, inconsistent or incoherent that a reasonable fact finder could conclude that it was not an honestly held belief but rather was subterfuge for discrimination.” 

But because Wise failed to prove retaliation for seeking an accommodation with credible or valid evidence of pretext, the district court granted summary judgment to the Postal Service on the retaliation claim. The 10th Circuit affirmed this portion of the judgment.  

Judge Timothy Tymkovich dissented in part because he concluded that the Postal Service adequately accommodated Wise’s disability. Otherwise, Tymkovich joined the rest of the majority opinion.

“In my view, the record supports the district court’s determination that the Postal Service did what it could to accommodate Ms. Wise’s pregnancy,” wrote Tymkovich. “It capped the total weight Ms. Wise lifted, pushed, or pulled at twenty pounds. Because the accommodation required Ms. Wise to seek assistance when items exceeded her weight limit, it necessarily involved an interactive component.”

Tymkovich wrote he also felt Wise failed to adequately engage in the interactive process of her accommodation. During both the gurney incident and the package incidences described by the opinion, Wise had an obligation to inform her supervisors of her accommodation. She failed to do so, Tymkovich concluded.

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