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An engineer working for a gun manufacturer who complained about back strain from physical labor can go to trial on his disability discrimination claims, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Remington Arms Co. hired Robert Cady as an engineer in its Kentucky facility in 2012. Cady had injured his back in 2000, which resulted in his having back surgery. In 2007, his back pain flared up again. He underwent a second surgery in 2008 and was restricted at his prior job from lifting and bending.
At Remington, Cady clashed with co-workers and his boss. Several engineers complained that he was needlessly confrontational and argumentative. Remington's performance review of Cady, however, rated him as a valued team member, although noting that he often responded to issues in a way that "bordered on personal confrontation." Cady's behavior led to a dispute with his supervisor, and Cady threatened to resign. Remington's vice president, Scott Franz, spoke with Cady and convinced him not to resign. Cady was then transferred out of the workgroup.
After the transfer, Cady's back began getting worse. He shared with Remington's HR manager that he was going to the doctor due to back pain and shared his MRI results with her. This was the first time he shared his back issues with Remington. Because Cady told his doctor his work was sedentary, he did not receive any work restrictions.
The next week, Cady was sent to Remington's factory in St. Cloud, Minn. Franz tasked Cady with increasing the facility's production capacity and assigned him to assembling Creform workstations, which are benches made out of interlocking joints and pipes. Cady believed he was assigned to direct others to build the stations, not to construct them himself.
However, when Cady arrived at the plant, plant manager Todd Mittelstaedt told him the plant was understaffed and instructed him to build the stations. Cady agreed but asked for help, and the facility's production manager was assigned to help him. Shortly after starting the work, Cady complained about several aspects of the task. The work was to be performed by unloading parts from a truck and constructing the stations in a paved lot. Cady said his medication made him sensitive to sunlight, and he expressed concern about aggravating his back injury climbing in and out of the truck, bending over, and standing on pavement for long periods.
Cady telephoned Greg Parker, one of his supervisors in Kentucky, about the conditions. He also complained that the work was below his pay grade and should be assigned to a lower-paid employee. After the call, Mittelstaedt spoke with Cady, at which time Cady repeated his complaints and added one about traffic from forklifts driving by. Cady said he could work on building the benches if the company would "mix it up" with other work.
Mittelstaedt called Parker and said Cady had shared his concern about standing on concrete. Mittelstaedt told Parker he did not need Cady there if he could not build the Creform stations. Cady's supervisors called him that evening and told him to return to Kentucky. When Cady returned, he was fired for performance issues.
Cady filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory discharge and failure to accommodate in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Remington filed a motion for summary judgment to have the case dismissed because it was not on notice of any disability and because Cady did not request a specific accommodation. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the suit.
On appeal, Remington again argued that Cady only expressed a vague concern about his back. However, the 6th Circuit found that Cady had specifically told the HR manager about his back surgery and shared with her his MRI results. Remington also argued that Cady's many complaints obscured any disability issue. The 6th Circuit rejected this argument, finding that a disability complaint need not stand alone and that Cady had given enough information to form a request for accommodation. At the very least, Remington was on notice of the need to inquire further about possible accommodations.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]
The court also found sufficient evidence of pretext to support Cady's wrongful discharge claim; while Remington presented evidence that Cady was a difficult employee, its performance review did not indicate that he was deserving of discipline or likely to be fired. Thus, the 6th Circuit reversed the dismissal of Cady's claims and returned the case to the district court for trial.
Cady v. Remington Arms Co., 6th Cir., No. 16-5035 (Dec. 2, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Disability-related complaints can take many forms and can be included in a set of grievances raised by a disgruntled employee. That does not, however, give the employer the freedom to disregard the disability issues and fire the employee for the trouble he or she causes.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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