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Holmes v. General Dynamics Mission Systems, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

July 1, 2019

SHELIA HOLMES, Plaintiff,
v.
GENERAL DYNAMICS MISSION SYSTEMS, INC., Defendant.

          Richard F. Hawkins, III, The Hawkins Law Firm, PC, Richmond, Virginia, for Plaintiff.

          John B. Flood, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Washington, D.C., for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          James P. Jones United States District Judge.

         In this civil action, plaintiff Shelia Holmes claims that her former employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability and terminated her because of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12112-12117. The defendant employer has moved for summary judgment, asserting that Holmes was unable to perform the essential functions of her job and that her proposed accommodation was unreasonable. For the reasons that follow, I will grant the defendant's motion.

         I.

         The following facts taken from the summary judgment record are either undisputed or, where disputed, are stated in the light most favorable to Holmes, the nonmoving party.

         Holmes has a condition called brachymetatarsia, which means she has several abnormally short and overlapping toes. She also has diabetes. Wearing protective footwear causes friction and ulcers on her feet, which is very dangerous because of the diabetes. Wearing such shoes also causes her feet to swell and can create circulation problems, putting her at risk of requiring amputation. Holmes's brachymetatarsia and diabetes interfere with her major life activities of walking and standing.

         Holmes began working for General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, Inc., at its manufacturing plant in Marion, Virginia, in 1998 and was employed there for approximately 18 years, mostly as a Shelter Fabricator.[1] In that role, Holmes was exposed to a number of hazards. Shelter Fabricators work on the production floor around heavy objects that could fall or roll onto their feet, and there is also some risk of injury from electrical shocks or sharp objects. Although she was never injured on the job, Holmes does not dispute the presence of these hazards or the fact that they had the potential to severely injure her feet. The job description for Shelter Fabricator does not include any mention of wearing protective shoes. However, a job safety analysis dated August 15, 2013, states that wearing personal protective equipment, including protective footwear, is essential to the position of Shelter Fabricator.

         As early as 2003, General Dynamics stated that employees working on the production floor were required to wear steel-toed or similar shoes. Nevertheless, Holmes was allowed to work in tennis shoes or other loose-fitting shoes for many years. She had a note from a doctor explaining that her medical conditions would not allow her to wear protective shoes, and she would show the note to her supervisor to be excused from the requirement.

         Beginning in 2013, however, General Dynamics stopped exempting Holmes from the protective footwear requirement. That year, an outside auditor found a violation of the protective footwear policy by employee A.B. The audit finding was significant to the company because future violations could jeopardize the company's certifications and subject the company to other serious ramifications. As a result, the company made an effort to ensure full compliance with the requirement to wear safety shoes.

         Holmes obtained another medical note explaining that her conditions prevented her from wearing safety shoes, which she showed to the company. She also told the company that she had seen other employees work in the same area of the plant without wearing protective shoes. Holmes tried to comply with the policy by wearing protective footwear, but whenever she did so, the shoes caused problems for her feet, so she removed them. When she saw a human resources representative coming her way, she would donn them again in order to appear compliant with the policy.

         Human resources representative Brent Theriault spoke with several outside vendors to obtain safety shoes and shoe covers. None of the brands or varieties the company ordered for Holmes were acceptable to her. In November 2013, after reviewing a note from Holmes's doctor indicating that she could not wear protective foorwear, the company placed Holmes on an excused absence to allow her to find appropriate safety shoes, for which it would reimburse her. The company suggested that perhaps she could have safety shoes custom-made for her needs, but there is no indication that Holmes pursued that option.

         Another production-area employee, G.A., was for some period of time excused from wearing steel-toed or similar shoes because he had a hammer toe. G.A. was eventually required to wear such shoes as well, but not for some time after the requirement was imposed against Holmes. When Lisa Greenway, the plant's Environmental, Health and Safety Manager, learned that G.A. was not wearing safety shoes, she informed G.A. that he was required to wear such shoes and he assured her that he would do so going forward.

         The Collective Bargaining Agreement governing workers at the Marion, Virginia, General Dynamics plant generally requires employees to wear safety equipment. Regulations promulgated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) typically require employees working around heavy equipment to wear protective footwear. However, OSHA has suggested that “non-metallic toes caps” may be a reasonable alternative to steel-toed shoes for diabetic employees. Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. Ex. N, ECF No. 49-14. General Dynamics ordered several types and sizes of protective footwear for Holmes to try, including covers that would fit over her tennis shoes. Holmes does not suggest that a ...


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