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Fourth Circuit Says Inability to Wear Protective Equipment Made Employee Unqualified for Position

    Client Alerts
  • December 18, 2020

A number of employers have encountered resistance to mask wearing mandates put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, employees assert that they have a medical condition that prevents them from being able to wear a face mask. Last week in a related situation, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia) rejected a failure to accommodate claim filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems Inc., the plaintiff suffered from diabetes and other medical conditions that made it impossible for her to wear steel-toed shoes at work. After she rejected a number of alternative protective equipment options, she requested a waiver of the safety rule as a reasonable accommodation. The employer rejected this request for safety reasons and terminated the plaintiff, resulting in an ADA lawsuit.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim. While the ability to wear personal protective equipment was not an essential function of the plaintiff’s job, her inability to do so made her unqualified for the position. As such, the employer was not required to provide an accommodation that would waive this requirement. The plaintiff could not produce convincing evidence that the employer had not enforced this safety requirement with respect to other employees.

This case does not directly apply to face mask waiver requests. Unlike face mask requirements, the PPE required in Holmes was mandated under an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard. Employers may still be able to point to state or local mask mandates as the basis for the work requirement, but they should carefully review and document the legal and safety basis for this rule before concluding that the employee is unqualified for the position.