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Is a person who draws disability barred from suing under ADA?

11/02/2006

That was one of two important questions before the Third Circuit in Turner v. Hershey Chocolate USA. One question involved whether an employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to reasonably accommodate a worker’s disabilities. The other question related to what constitutes an essential job function.

A worker in a candy factory underwent several surgeries for fused cervical discs, postlaminectomy pain syndrome, cervical radioculopathy, and thoracic outlet syndrome

When she returned to work, the company accommodated her work restrictions by assigning her to a light-duty position as a line inspector sorting mint patties as they moved down a conveyor. Originally, she was assigned to the only line that required inspectors to stand and repeatedly bend and twist. When she complained of pain, she was moved to a line where she could sit down.

Is a person who draws disability barred from suing under ADA?

Rotation required

Later, to decrease the likelihood of repetitive-stress injuries to line inspectors’ wrists and arms, the company decided to rotate the workers daily among all lines. Rotation allowed them to change positions hourly and to alternate between sitting and standing and using left and right arms.

The worker objected to the new rotation and refused to work on an assembly line requiring movements that caused her pain. She took action and gave the company

  1. A letter from her lawyer asking the company to exempt her from rotating, and
  2. A form from her doctor limiting her to activities that required no stretching, bending, twisting, or turning of the neck or lower back or lifting more than 20 pounds

The company decided that the worker couldn’t continue in her role as an inspector because she wasn’t able to rotate among all the required lines, which it viewed as necessary to prevent injuries to all inspectors. The worker applied for disability benefits, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) determined that she was disabled and awarded them.

Essential function

The second reason given by the trial court was that the worker couldn’t perform an essential function of the job: namely, rotating among workstations. Again, the Third Circuit disagreed, holding that rotating workstations wasn’t essential. Whether a job duty is an “essential function” depends on whether it is “fundamental” to the employment position. A job function may be considered essential for any of several reasons, including the fact that

  • the reason the position exists is to perform that function,
  • only a few workers are available among which to distribute that job function, and/or
  • the function may be highly specialized so that the worker was hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform the function.

Based on these criteria, the Third Circuit held that rotating wasn’t necessarily an essential job function. The inspector position didn’t exist so that inspectors could rotate. The rotation system didn’t affect the number of workers required to operate the lines. And, finally, rotating was not a highly specialized function, and the worker wasn’t hired for this ability. Concluding that this was an issue a jury could resolve, the court reinstated the suit.

No easy answers

Here, the employer faced a difficult decision in resolving a conflict between all inspectors’ health and one inspector’s health. A jury may ultimately vindicate the company. Nonetheless, this case demonstrates that sometimes no clear answers exist, and any potential course of action can lead to exposure for businesses.

The Moye White Employment Group would be happy to assist with questions regarding ADA requirements and viable accommodations to limit corporate exposure to risk.

Discrimination alleged

Two years later, the worker sued the company under the ADA, alleging that she was not totally disabled and could have performed her position if the company had accommodated her request for rotation exemption. The trial court ruled for the company without a trial on two grounds. The first ruling stated that applying for disability benefits precluded the worker from arguing that she could now work.

The Third Circuit disagreed. It held that the worker’s SSA application didn’t bar her ADA claim. The court relied on the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems, that statements supporting an application for SSA disability benefits don’t take into account the concept of reasonable accommodation under the ADA and, don’t necessarily bar an ADA claim that someone is capable of performing essential job functions with reasonable accommodation.

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