ADA Claim of Worker with Heart Conditions Advances to Trial

By Jeffrey Rhodes June 27, 2019

​A former employee of a restoration company could not show that he was disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) without a medical expert, but he could show that he arguably was regarded as disabled, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Metro Restoration Services Inc. (Metro) repairs property damage after catastrophic events such as storms and fires. In 2013, the company hired the plaintiff as a scheduler. The plaintiff determined to which jobsites Metro's work crews would go and when.

In late 2014, the plaintiff began having heart problems. He had a CT scan, a heart catheter implanted and an echocardiogram, and he wore a heart monitor for more than a month. During that time, he occasionally missed work for medical tests and treatment. He also worked remotely sometimes.

The plaintiff kept his boss, Metro's owner, informed of his medical issues. One weekend in the spring of 2015, severe weather hit, and the plaintiff worked remotely to coordinate Metro's crews. The next week, the owner went to the plaintiff's home and fired him. During their conversation, the owner said he was firing the plaintiff due to his health issues and medical appointments.

The plaintiff sued Metro in state court for disability discrimination under both the ADA and Kentucky law. Metro removed the case to federal court. During discovery, the point in the litigation process when evidence is gathered, the plaintiff identified his doctor as a potential lay witness but not as an expert witness. After discovery closed, Metro moved for summary judgment.

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The district court granted the motion in part, ruling that Metro was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, on the plaintiff's claims under Kentucky law and the portion of the plaintiff's ADA claim in which he alleged that Metro regarded him as disabled. That left a second portion of the plaintiff's claim in which he alleged he was actually disabled.

Metro later filed a second summary judgment motion on this portion of the plaintiff's claim. The district court granted the motion, ruling that the plaintiff could not meet his burden without expert testimony. The plaintiff was barred from presenting his doctor as an expert because he did not designate him as such in a timely manner.

The plaintiff appealed the entry of summary judgment on his ADA claims to the 6th Circuit. The 6th Circuit found that an ADA claim of discrimination against an actual disability requires a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. While it was clear that the plaintiff had several heart conditions, whether the plaintiff could show that as a physical impairment that substantially limited his cardiovascular and circulatory functions was disputed.

The court recognized that the "substantially limits" requirement is not a demanding standard. However, in this case, the impairment was complicated enough to require specialized testimony to present to a jury. The plaintiff's diagnoses included such words as bradycardia and others that are rarely used outside of the medical profession; therefore, the court found that without a medical expert, the plaintiff could not establish that he had a disability.

The court also found, however, that the plaintiff could establish that he arguably was regarded as disabled based on his boss's statement to him that he was being fired due to health issues and medical appointments. This testimony was sufficient to present to a jury, without any further evidence, as to whether his employer thought he was disabled and fired him for that reason.

Thus, the 6th Circuit overturned the summary judgment for Metro on the grounds that the company owner regarded the plaintiff as having a disability, but it upheld the summary judgment on the grounds of actual disability.

Baum v. Metro Restoration Services Inc., 6th Cir., No. 18-5699 (April 11, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Employers may be confused by medical diagnoses their employees receive that require in-depth explanation to understand. That does not allow an employer to simply discipline or discharge an employee for complications arising from a medical situation.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on the Americans with Disabilities Act.]



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