District Court: Lump in Breast Isn’t a Disability Under the ADA

By Roger S. Achille June 6, 2023

Takeaway: An employer need not accommodate an employee by reallocating essential functions or permit an accommodation that poses a risk of harm to the employee or others.

​Stating that "not every ailment is a disability," a U.S. district court dismissed a former employee's claim of disability discrimination upon finding that a lump in her left breast was not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The court also determined that the woman's employer had stated legitimate grounds for her termination.

The plaintiff worked on the production line for Universal Pure LLC. In May 2020, the plaintiff discovered a lump in her left breast and told her supervisor about it. In July 2020, a consultant who was monitoring productivity noticed the plaintiff leaning over the conveyor belt and packing with one hand. The consultant told the plaintiff she should not be leaning on the conveyor belt and should be using both hands to pack.

After receiving this feedback, the plaintiff met with Universal's HR manager, who told her that if she couldn't "keep up with what is needed with the job," then she could not keep working for the company. The plaintiff claimed she advised the HR manager about the lump in her breast. Universal contended that the plaintiff would not accept feedback to follow safety and productivity directions, and that is why the company terminated her.

On Oct. 22, 2021, the plaintiff sued Universal, asserting claims of disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA. To have a disability under the ADA, the plaintiff must demonstrate "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The plaintiff contended that the pain from the lump impacted her breathing, sleeping, lifting, reaching and grasping.

Regarding the life activity of sleeping, the court noted that the plaintiff did not testify that the pain from the lump prevented her from sleeping, but that she sometimes slept on the same side of her body as the lump, and by the time she woke up, the lump was irritated. Moreover, the plaintiff did not provide any testimony as to whether, or to what extent, the pain from the lump prevented her from engaging in lifting, reaching and grasping.

Finally, the plaintiff testified that she managed her pain by taking ibuprofen twice a week.

In light of all this, the court determined that no reasonable jury could conclude that the lump in the plaintiff's breast substantially limited one or more of her major life activities. As such, the plaintiff could not demonstrate that she had a disability under the ADA.

Furthermore, the court said that to discredit Universal's proffered reasons—poor performance and insubordination—the plaintiff "cannot simply show that Universal's decision was wrong or mistaken, since the factual dispute at issue is whether discriminatory animus motivated the employer, not whether the employer is wise, shrewd, prudent or competent." The court emphasized that Universal terminated the plaintiff after a consultant saw her leaning over the conveyor belt and packing with one hand, and that the plaintiff did not dispute that it is a safety hazard to lean over the conveyor belt and that she was supposed to pack with two hands.

Likewise, the plaintiff did not dispute Universal's assertion that she refused to accept and implement feedback to follow safety and productivity directions on the production floor. The court said the "mere fact that she disclosed the lump to the HR manager during the meeting in which she was terminated is not sufficient to cast doubt as to why Universal terminated her." As a result, the court held that the plaintiff could not establish a "prima facie" case of disability discrimination, and even if she could, she could not establish that Universal's reasons for terminating her were pretextual.

Abdul v. Universal Pure LLC, No. 2:21-cv-04734, E.D. Pa. (Feb. 10, 2023).

Roger S. Achille is a labor attorney in Boston.



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