A disability discrimination case filed against Molson Coors Beverage Co. by an employee who, due to his disability, could no longer perform his essential job functions, which included traveling and attending in-person meetings, has been dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Melchior George had worked as a national sales executive for Coors since 2011, a role which, according to the case, required extensive travel to improve sales of the company’s products at Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants east of the Mississippi River. George spent about 50% of his time flying for his job to attend presentations, serve as a beer sommelier at dinner meetings, meet clients, and entertain stakeholders.
George began to take leave in 2018 when he began not feeling well, and in 2019, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, which required heart-transplant surgery in May 2019. During this time, he took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and then short-term disability until those benefits were exhausted.
Coors engaged in an interactive process to discuss his accommodation needs and how he could continue to fulfill his essential job duties. Through this process, the company determined that George could not carry out his job functions of traveling and meeting in person with clients and that there was no other open role for which he was qualified, especially in light of his unwillingness to relocate.
Thus, in November 2019, Coors terminated George. He sued, alleging that Coors failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. In dismissing the case at the district level and on appeal, the court last month held that George was no longer qualified for his job because he could not perform its essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodations.
The court relied upon “substantial evidence” that extensive travel was essential, including the job description, which stated that approximately 50% to 60% of travel was necessary for the position. The court explained that “According to a sales-origination map in the record, Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants located in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana generated half of the total sales volume in the area for which George was responsible. George’s direct supervisor produced a list of his major customers, all of whom were based in locations well beyond a three-hour driving radius from Washington.” The court stated that it affords “substantial weight” to the evidence that his role required “in-person interaction” to see the facilities and meet with customers.
George also alleged that Coors retaliated against him because of his medical leave protected by FMLA by giving him a negative 2018 performance review and then terminating him.
Coors offered legitimate non-retaliatory justifications for its employment actions, citing negative feedback supervisors received from customers regarding George’s performance when a manager covered for George during his medical leave. She learned from internal counterparts that George lacked a sense of urgency, that he was “aloof” and didn’t return messages.
“George was terminated not in retaliation but in view of the medical restrictions that precluded him from fulfilling his job duties,” the court said. It also held that “the 2018 performance review also does not suggest a retaliatory motive because George’s past performance was not a basis for the termination decision.”
Employers must provide reasonable accommodation for qualified individuals with a disability who can perform their essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations. Here, George was not qualified because no accommodation could enable him to do his job.
This employer prevailed because it followed the rules that were in place at the time.
The employee had a job description outlining essential duties. The employee’s job demonstrated that he did, indeed, travel consistent with the job description.
Coors provided George with full benefits available: leave under the FMLA and short-term disability. Upon his return, when George stated he needed reasonable accommodations, the company quickly engaged in an interactive discussion, including looking at the job functions. When it was determined that he could not fulfill them, the company sought alternatives, including a transfer to a vacant open position. George was unwilling to relocate. With no other alternative and the uncertainty over when George would be able to return to perform his job, Coors properly terminated him.
Employers sometimes feel paralyzed to make an employment decision in situations like this for fear of exactly what happened here: The employee will sue for discrimination. However, employers need to recognize that the disability laws (state and federal) do not require that an employer remove essential job functions or lower performance standards, nor is it required to lower job performance expectations or transfer essential job functions to other employees.